AN ALTERNATIVE HISTORY OF BLOCKBUSTER VIDEO, IN THE YEARS AFTER ITS COLLAPSE.
(w/ poems by Owen Vince)
I’m at a warehouse somewhere in North London. New Year’s Eve 2020. He promised me it would be a good time. Asked me to meet him here. The street is windswept and light hail starts to pelt me as an insult. The building is enormous and its massive doors, metal and shut tight. Once again, I check the maps on my phone which only assure me that the address is correct. Nothing more. I try calling him but he doesn’t pick up, but moments later texts me Alright boss? You there already? I write back Yeah where are you?? While I wait for an answer I glance about anxiously. There is the odd humanoid shape in the gloom head down hood up with shopping bags pushing into the cold and darkness. Got held up at the pub (my round). Go round the side door. Use the keys I gave you. Say hello to Magda for me. See you soon!
I pocket my phone and, desperate to be out of this wind and cold, hurry around to the side of the warehouse. There is a feeble streetlamp cutting in and out shining more often than not on a door that looks to be 2 meters high it has a raised scarring of locks on its left side. I squint at them but am just as bewildered up close as they look to be of multiple varieties all metal and tight lipped. Goddamit. I don’t recall him giving me any keys unless you count the one to his post box but I’m sure I gave that back to him and not sure what use it would be here. Still I check my pockets out of desperation (hope?) and feel several keys lurking there. Weirded out I pull at them in haste and (my hand cold and dexterity down) spill them all over the ground. There in the flickering lamp light and among the small balls of hail (which litter the ground like Styrofoam pellets before rapidly melting) is a collection of keys in a variety of sizes and shapes that would make a jailer proud. His small postbox key lay on the far left of this newly cast constellation. At its center was an outsized brass key with only two teeth and swirling around this gravitational center a few more modern-looking keys that would have been more at home opening car doors (retractable, sleek with microchips imbedded in their handles). Stunned at this bounty but too concerned with the task of getting out of the wet cold and wind to question their import I scooped them up and set to fumbling with the locks. You would think (with the variety of keys I’d discovered) that it would have been easy to match them up to the locks but it quickly became apparent that there were more locks than keys which made me grit my teeth in frustration. I could feel the beginnings of a panic attack swell in my stomach and started to mutter under my breath: Ran (1985) music by Toru Takemitsu; The Bishop’s Wife (1947) music by Hugo Freidhofer; Stand by Me (1986) music by Jack Nitzsche and then it clicked. The first lock had popped open with the postal key. Again, I was too stressed out and cold to think much about it so I just moved on to the next one – the big skeletal key. I looked up searching for the right lock and found a large padlock the size of my outstretched hand at the top of the door. As I climbed up and stood on the other locks to get to it, stretching to insert the key I heard it groan. Or was it me groaning? As I fit the teeth in its mouth, I again heard it groan like it was awakening. The lock was old and rusted so I had to turn the key hard and could hear the whisperings of the other locks as I did this. At first, I thought it was the rustling of leaves but a quick glance at the ground showed no fallen foliage and while my head was turned, I could better make out that the whisperings were coming from the locks. I put my head closer to them. I couldn’t make out anything intelligible but felt the topics of bondage, servitude, and release being communicated to me. I paused for a moment taking in this information letting it settle in me; raw and undigested. Then I set to work with renewed fervor finding the remaining locks with ease and fitting them with their keys and turning them now with the promise of hearing their post-coital sighs. I felt a mania coming over me as their intercurled voices whispered louder and louder the groans faint on the wind. I dug in my pockets and produced more keys which made me squeal with delight at their discovery and I had unlocked all of the locks except one. It was black and had no mouth. As if in solidarity with this muteness the others fell silent. I stepped back from the door and looked at the one key in my hand but it had no teeth. It was shaped like a modern car key – square and silver. The hail had given way to snow flurries that swirled down on me. I took a deep breath, felt my heart pounding and – not knowing what to do – mashed down on it with my finger the final lock popped with an orgasmic affirmative and the door slowly swung open – bathing me in light.
I was greeted at the door by a guy with a face full of black stubble and curly hair. He was wearing a tux and took in my soiled appearance without breaking character or making me feel bad about it.
“Come in come in,” the door swung shut behind me and I was now faced with warmth and a well-lit brick interior. “Dreadful weather we are ‘aving, n’est ce pas? May I take your jacket?” Unsure of protocol I shrugged off my coat and was glad I’d taken my friend’s advice about looking smart. Unaccustomed to ties I straightened mine and spotting the two women holding trays of champagne and what looked to be a whiskey concoction, tried to make some sense of my hair. “When I moved to Londre my friends say to me ‘But why? The weather there is terrible.’ But I say to them ‘Does it not rain in Paris?’” He laughed at his own joke suddenly shaping his face in an ‘O’ “Mon deux I almost forgot.” He turned to a pyramid of pink boxes all of the same size and handed me one. “’ere. This is for you.” He smiled waiting for me to open it. I looked at the two women who were standing near some burgundy curtains (probably meant to demarcate a border or at least keep the cold out) waiting patiently – their paid-for grins trimmed with faint amusement at my awkwardness. I looked down at the box in my hands and saw that it was wrapped in a thick crème colored paper. In lieu of a ribbon was a strip of 35 mm film. “Yes. Open it!” I did as bid and found a black top hat. And not a cheap one but a properly shaped top hat of wool felt. It also had some film strip instead of a band. There was also a pair of chunky black-framed glasses with polarized lenses; surprisingly clear under the lighting conditions. “’appy 2020 hey! Not bad, no? ‘ere is to the future – may you see it in 20/20,” he said winking at me before turning to the next guest a middle-aged couple that looked like academics. The women stepped forward wishing me a happy new year and offering me my choice from the two trays. I helped myself to two whiskeys, knocking one back before moving on.
This side of the curtain gave on to an interior that had sectioned off the warehouse into different hallways and rooms with the feel of an art space. I found myself in a long hall with the florescent madness of Daniel Richter’s paintings on either side of me. I looked at a few up close, but their hollow-faced figures, electric tension, and dark motifs unsettled me and I mumbled under my breath Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) music by Bruce Broughton; Explorers (1985) music by Jerry Goldsmith; Goonies (1985) music by Dave Grusin; Big Trouble in Little China (1986) music by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth. Most of the people who passed me looked like art students (young disheveled hipsters) or gallery owners (pompous, chins slightly upturned, impeccably dressed in dark colors and sharp lines) or art buyers (more conservatively dressed and affecting the look of being mildly amused and knowledgeable; the type of people who work in the financial district). They all made me self-conscious and I felt both shabby and out of place. I looked left and right to avoid their faces but was met with the faces of Richter’s paintings; a boat of skeletal refugees wrapped in florescent colors and instead put my head down and hurried to the end of the hall to escape the intensity, the harrowing looks on their faces.
From the right-hand side of the end of a hall was a flickering purple and blue light and an ominous low-end swell of brass that suddenly burst forth in a loop of triumph. But at the end of the hallway I was stopped short by a gray on gray drawing or painting, I couldn’t tell which, of a chandelier. It was mesmerizing. The lack of color could seem to have been a negative but here it cast the chandelier which took up the entire center of the piece with uniqueness. As though it had emerged from its similar-toned surroundings. The artists had somehow managed to convey the weight of this opulent chandelier and the reflections shining off the individual crystals of which it was made (there seemed to be hundreds winking back at me). It was all awash in a grey-tone shimmer. “Raedecker” I turned to see a petite dark-haired woman in a sequined black dress standing just next to me. “Amazing isn’t it? He is one of my favorites.” I turned back to the painting. “Yes, it is. I don’t know his work.” “No?” she turned to look at me for the first time, a question shining in her dark eyes as though she pitied me my ignorance. “Well then I envy you. You’ve started a lifelong love affair.” “That’s presumptuous I mean based on only one work of his.” She fixed me now with a stern look. “No, it isn’t.” A pause. “I’m Magdalena. But you may call me Magda.” I took her hand but suddenly couldn’t remember my name. “Are you here with someone?” “Uh. No. Not as of yet. I’m supposed to meet someone here.” She marked she’d understood by raising an eyebrow and turning to the next room but at a pace that I could keep up with. We walked in to see a group of people, libations in hand, and the same woman from the entrance circling through them with trays held aloft. The small knot of people was milling about a stage that had been set up in the corner with Christmas lights and a speaker who was preparing to read from an iPhone. I gasped in disbelief then erupted in laughter. “What is it?” My newfound companion looked at me conspiratorially wanting in on my private joke. “Nothing. It’s just – that’s my friend. There on the stage the person I’m here to meet.” I waved my arm but he wasn’t looking. “Oh, is he a writer?” “Yeah, well among other things. He also makes non-games.” “‘Non-games,’” she said trying it out and for the first time I noticed that she had an accent. “Yeah they are like video games but without a point.” She was taking this in when Owen started to read.
O good the ice-box is broken , now . officially . i still owe one copy
of Tk season 3 (region 1) to the blockbuster . you might call it Blocky
or B-busters but that is stupid and i won’t involve myself
With such ideas. Ivy is brilliant , and vicious, because it tears
Holes in the blue facade. The blue facade is leaking tv static .
I want to rewind the tape but my finger gets stuck.
In theory b b s t e r will continue accumulating late fines against me
Until the heat death of the universe.. I can’t say whether or not
This will devolve into posting online , but there’s nobody
To talk to. The isles sing with gray humour , &c i am lost there
I am lost.
Is being in debt to borebuzter in fact a precondition for becoming
A ghost ? if so i will prepare an ugly gold burial mask and
Lay down in the carpark , until such time that i am free of it .
The crowd clapped in that desultory way that art crowds have. It seemed the reading was over and as Owen made his way off the stage, I approached him waving. He clearly saw me and at first showed a glimmer of recognition before closing me off with a tight smile and a nod of the head. He turned and spoke to someone else. “Come with me there really is something extraordinary in this next room.” “Wait just a second I want to talk to my friend.” There were not many people between me and him but they seemed to causally reform in knots that prevented me from reaching him. Final I forced my way between a couple I can only broadly describe as a hipster couple (judging by his beard and the tattooed back of his hands and her septum piercing and spacers) jostling his beer in the process. “Hey, watch it mate!” “Sorry” “Fascist.” I had to do a quick double take at that one and in that second lost sight of Owen. When I caught up to him he was leaving the room. “Owen!” I shouted perhaps a bit too loudly garnering some odd looks from his coterie “Owen. There you are.” I said trying not to look too ruffled. “Alright, mate. You here with the gallery, then?” “Huh? What? No, what the fuck man why didn’t you pick up when I called you?” “Called me? I don’t even know you,” he said scanning around his circle of friends for support. “What are you talking about?” “I was just about to ask you the same thing.” “No I mean you invited me here.” “And now I’m inviting you to leave. It’s been a pleasure.” He turned to walk away but I reached out grabbing his arm. “Get you bloody hands off me!” My arm was being pulled at from behind. “Careful or you’ll make enemies.” I turned to the woman I’d met earlier, Magda, and Owen pulled his arm free and left the room quickly. “Who was that?” “I told you the guy who invited me here.” “It seems he didn’t know you, are you sure?” “Yeah I think I’d know my own friend when I see him.” “Yes, but he must also see you. Come. I want to show you something.”
Magda put her arm through mine – a move that felt both jarringly intimate and perfectly appropriate at the same time. I did nothing to dissuade her but I was so preoccupied with Owen’s disappearance and this new development that I didn’t notice the white stallion galloping towards me until the last minute. I shrieked (a sound I wasn’t proud of: more like a bleat) and ducked to the ground arms up to shield me but the stallion leaped over me and … spread wings? The now-Pegasus soared triumphant to a rising score of banner trumpets and passed over and through me. I saw people laughing at me and quickly got back on my feet. “I didn’t realize you were so afraid of horses.” “Only when they sprout wings indoors.” We stood for a moment and watched the ghostly equine shimmer to life in the corner and slowly curve into the center of the room, sprout wings and leap over a pile of old TV sets each one playing a different ’80s film. The Pegasus flickered out of existence upon landing only to reemerge from the opposite corner and start over again. “What is this meant to represent?” My companion looked at me with a puzzlement so complete it almost bordered on sadness. “Time. Wonder. Triumph. …Don’t you like it?” I gave my full attention to the cycle in its entirety. The crescendo of the music undoubtedly had an effect on my overall feelings about the piece but the moment when the horse so very near to the heap of box TVs (itself a jumble of faces, car crashes, and violence) sprouts its virtual wings and took to the air was, well, magical. But a glitch caused it to bend sideways and the moment was lost.
Magda once again looped her arm through mine and steered me from that room into the next one. “You haven’t told me much about yourself.” A playfulness sketched across her face. “I’m not sure I know that much about myself really.” “Ah. A stranger to yourself then.” “Something like that.” “Perhaps that is why your friend doesn’t recognize you.” I stopped and looked at her. “Look I’m not mistaken. Maybe it’s some kind of performance art thing with him but I do know him.” Taken aback “Oh course. I don’t doubt it for a moment.” She then put her arm back through mine and we strode on.
The next room was shrouded in black light. On opposite ends stood naked men and women looking like they’d been painted by shotgun blasts with Day-Glo paint and then rolled in glitter. The blacklight set off the paint and they standing opposite one another growling and panting, some swinging their arms simian style and beating their chests, some acting out sexually by either pulling on their dicks or rubbing/fingering themselves; some working their way through jags of emotion: hysterical crying fits morphing into bails of laughter and quietening to a whimper all in the space of a few minutes. All of human emotion and life was on display here as they faced off from one another taunting and jeering at one another. Suddenly synth battle drums, slowed down to drone speed, washed over the room in thunderous waves. As the last of the waves rolled across the room and faded, they charged one another, several hundred old-fashioned flashbulbs went off like sheets of lightning from around the ceiling of the room creating a strobe effect. The two sides collided with a slapping of bodies and then proceeded to wrestle one another to the floor in groups of twos and threes. It was hard to tell whether their anguish was genuine or not. Some men had each other in headlocks, women were grabbing at one another’s hair, at least a few had produced rope from somewhere and were trying to rope each other like calves but lust ruled the day as they began to fall into pyramids of writhing desire. Amongst all the color and light I could feel Magda pressing up against me, we pushed past them and into the next room.
I could feel her warmth against me and she was rubbing my forearm with her hand. Neither of us said anything. The outré ribald sexual display of the Day-Glo room was working its magic on us but it was dependent on being taciturn it seemed. I was suddenly feeling very drunk when I bumped a barefoot with my face. “Christ!” There were men hanging from the ceiling about 50 or so, most of them in suits but some in construction worker’s outfits, janitors’ kits, pajamas. “Oh! I’ve read about this piece!” Magda let go of my arm and wandered off throughout the room on her own. I looked up at the men hanging by their necks from nooses in the ceiling, they turned out to be lifelike wax dolls. Very lifelike. In between them were dozens and dozens of large, colorful balloons as if a kids’ birthday party had only just taken place here. “Did Ron Mueck do these?” I called over to Magda. “No, a Russian who usually makes dolls Zajkov I believe. It is meant to call attention to the high suicide rate in Russia – one of the highest in the world.” Magda clearly wanted to spend a little more time perusing these so I gave her some space and wandered through the hanging bodies on my own. They were hung low so that they couldn’t be ignored. Their feet hung down to my collarbone and there were so many of them that you had to push them a bit to the side which meant that they were all swinging slightly as though in a breeze. I was moving one aside when I noticed that here and there some of them had been given toe tags, fastened on with a plastic twist tie. I picked one up and read it:
I will walk backwards into the sea , Curse the name of goD
and the animals Who sank him . on the shore i encounter
Not one but thirteen Copies of Gerry Maguire , , each damaged
from the salt – and with claw marks on them. These were most horrible. My
hand is now trapped inside the doorframe Of the b – r at bend, Oregon .
my finger is encased in the sticky
Copper Ferrite of Alien, the film ; a cassette i have watched
More than any other. I can’t pause the tape without tearing
My hand off or spilling an alarming amount of blood (i presume ). I
Call Judson from a public telephone (hi, agh, what time
Is it in Poland , rn? , and are you posting?) . the isles sing
With gray terroir , and collapse into themselves. Static is a physical property
Coincident with preparation – of not knowing what this
Or that thing means. The ‘real-life’ equivalent of static is sand .
I looked around for Owen. This was his work I knew it. I spun around feeling claustrophobic suddenly but didn’t see him anywhere. I picked up another one and read.
A tanker goes down in Hormuz . water displaces dog , who
Is Cloistered there. I holiday on shadow island , stuffing
The breadcrumbs of ashurbanipal into my mouth . ash ,
They taste of work . of working. The gerund does the lord’s work.
In time i will dissociate entirely , not recognizing myself
In the mirror , &c trying – ultimately – to throw myself
into the window glass like a sad old toad. For now i have my health .
I catch reruns and feel no emotional connection to these frigid
Salesmen , who are Knight s, and who cleave [ with swords ] the armies of k , into
Jelly , into wild meat , and sow the fields of Wessex with their bones.
Love , it is a peculiar sound. Work. the real work we have to put in
Recognizes that we will not be at work on ourselves
In any meaningful way. I am who i always have been. Sad, isn’t it?
Or perhaps you are sad , and the real work is not Dying , or not dying badly .
I ran out of the room –
and into a glass door, the people on the other side, drinks in hand only half-turned out of feigned, bored interest to see what had happened. On the other side of the glass was a swanky high-end pub of sorts. It was spacious (surprisingly so) with a bar running to the left along the wall and swinging doors on either side to the kitchen. There were large round plush side booths with patent leather backing and table service, wooden 2 and 4 tops with couples who one can only guess came through the museum to eat here, or were they just taking a break from the gallery viewing?
Feeling shaken from the hangings and my faux pas with the glass partition I made my way to the bar and ordered a beer, handed over a tenner and received no change. “Excuse me? My change.” The barman having walked off immediately after serving me now stood a ways down the bar drying a glass with a rag and pointed, with a grin at a chalkboard with the prices.
I found a seat at a 2 top along a bench facing the bar, the door I’d come in on my left and the exit to my right in the form of another large glass door. I figured I’d wait for Magda to make an appearance; I mean you had to come through here to get to the rest of the exhibition (didn’t you?) In my panic I hadn’t really looked around for another route out of there. I downed my beer returned to the bar dropped another tenner and returned to my seat casting a side glance at the door. No sign of her. In spite of the liquid courage my hands were starting to shake and my breathing shallow and hurried. Shielding my brow with my hands I focused my attention and breathing: Sunset Boulevard (1950) music Franz Waxman; Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) music by John Williams; Sweet Smell of Success (1957) music by Elmer Bernstein – slowly breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth. “Excuse me. Would you like a reading?” I looked up and saw Magda. “Oh, hey there you are. I was looking for you.” “I’m sorry I don’t understand.” I looked closer, steading my gaze. “Oh, I’m sorry. You … look like someone I know.” Her face registered relief. “May I sit?” “Of course.” “Would you like a reading?” “I’m sorry I don’t understand.” She reached down to a bag at her feet. “Are you interested in the occult?” The way that last word came out made me reassess her. The strong Eastern European accent (cracking those double CCs like kindling) sounded a lot like Magda and this woman had the same build, eyes, nose, but the mouth there was something … sinister about it where Magda’s had only been sly, mischievous, alluring. “Uh, not particularly no.” She leaned in her mouth stretched taunt in a smile, “I tell you what, if you buy me a brandy, I will do a reading for you. How about that?” I looked at her, the lines around her eyes, the heavy make-up, in fact she looked nothing like Magda she was far too old, and yet, she looked just like her. A future her. One filled with the wreckage of the past and no shelter. Anywhere. “Done.” I got up to fetch the brandy and myself another beer. When I got back to the table it was cluttered with drinking glasses. “Where did these come from?” “Oh thank you,” she said taking a sip of her brandy. “This is your reading. I don’t use cards – too messy.” “Messy?” She waved me off. “An industry term. Are you ready to hear the results?” I took a closer look at the glasses. They were all collectable movie glasses from the ’80s. There was a faded E.T. glass and one from the Empire Strikes Back, a Raiders of the Lost Ark one and even a Dark Crystal one which I thought, idly noticing its mint condition, had to be worth some money. “Aren’t you supposed to use cards for this?” Drinking deep from her brandy, she held up one finger and moved it in a straight definitive horizontal line. “No. This is not that.” I shrugged. I didn’t believe in the occult so it didn’t matter what method she used. I was feeling the alcohol now and wanted to move on. “You are seeking for someone…” “Aren’t we all?” “And you have come to a place you are unfamiliar with…” “Well I’ve lived in London for three years now. Thought my accent would have been rounded out a bit more but ok.” She looked up from the glasses and fixed me with a sharp gaze. “You are joking. Do not jest with me.” “I will not jest with you.” She stared pointedly for a moment more before looking back down at the glasses. “…you are at unease.” “Well, yeah I mean –” “Shhh! That’s not what I mean.” “Well what do you mean? Look I’ve got to be going. You’ve got your brandy and so just –” “We’re not done yet.” “Yes, we are.” “…so you don’t wish to hear the rest?” “No, thank you. I need to be going.” She looked at me for a while but whether out of concern or pity I couldn’t say. Again, I thought how much she looked like Magda. “Very well. But remember this – your friend Magda cannot guide you through to the end, and all the keys in the world won’t help you pick this lock.” “What? Wait how did you –” There was the screeching of a mic’s feedback behind me. “Alright how is everyone?” I swung around to see Owen standing on a table mic in hand with a crowd of his admirers circled around him. “You know before I start reading, I just want to throw down the gauntlet to all of you film graduate students here raise your hands I know you’re here – every gallery has a rash of them – good, good, what’s that then? 7–8 oh you in the back, hello there, so 9? Right. I’ve just shot a remake of Stalker on my iPhone in which I throw a piece of cloth with a fidget spinner attached into a supermarket isle. Wait now don’t laugh I’m deadly serious now. I then soliloquize for 17 minutes and about the burden of being an artist and the truth.” The crowd has grown serious at this. “Yeah I took fucking ages to walk from Aldi to my house.” Laughter. “It’s only 500 yards away.” More laughter. Not wanting Owen to get away this time I quickly glance over my shoulder at the old woman but she’s packed up and left. I crane my neck scanning the people behind me but can’t seem to pick her out amongst the crowd.
Watch this , this is cool . i backflip into heaven and knock
Myself out on unwashed dishes . they wrap the really dicey content
In black film but the clerk knows what it contains (flesh , actually) .
I have become less afraid of the world ,over the years , ,as soon
As i realized the world is the wool pulled over my eyes , and
Not the other way around. I have started going to the same bar
&c getting distressed if i can’t sit in the same seat each time i
Go to this bar . this, my co-worker said, is ‘age.’ I poke my skin
In the mirror. Is this work? I bloody my hand on the toilet door
Of the B.Er, slipping on old DVD cases which have been left ,
Remnant , on the floor . this is a kind of sacrilege against our
More secular gods – Fox, Etc. 20th century carion. I pretend
To serve customers from behind the un-lit counter and use their
Full names; such as dog. God . your majesty . Chaulker , Etc .
There was a roar from a drunken hipster up front and then everyone tumbled in behind him hooting and hollering. Giving up on finding either Magda or her tarot doppelganger I start making my way towards the table where Owen is standing chatting with a particularly alluring blonde girl in a beret and drinking from a pint glass. Distracted, he doesn’t see me push my way to the front until I’m just beneath him. As he readies to read some more he looks down and our eyes lock. It’s impossible to tell exactly what he’s thinking from his face, but from this distance I see it is most certainly him, not merely someone who looks like him. He clears his throat and, his eyes never wavering from mine says, “Looks like we are all in attendance, then? Let’s get back to it.”
My friends have disappeared into mangrove time . i am quiet. My
Dearest friends have segued into render glitches , and
The render farms which feed them .. we are fat on the meat
Of the suffering of others . i don’t look away , because the soil
Of something awful prepared me to Look directly at god, and to spit
At them . isn’t it marvellous , watching Die Hard , on repeat
In a nice hotel . Look i didn’t come here to be obnoxious just let me
Kill my arms in peace ; my friends , don’t you get it , have disappeared
Into carion . it is a riot outside , in so far as ONE lone gunman
Is doing rounds , taking pot shots at the kingDom , and it is falling
. should i take the brakes off , ? i shall take the brakes off . shall
I fall from the tower of imperilled dreams ? that too would be nice . .
Look i am trying to find a way to be incredibly tender .
is it working , yet?
Again he is rewarded with a loud round of clapping, whistling, and shouting. “Thank you. Thank you.” He said before he turned and looked straight at me, winked and then kicked his pint glass dead at me, hitting me in the chest and soaking me in beer before it smashed on the floor. He then leaped over the front row of people and bolted out of the room laughing. I tried to push past people but one drunken hanger-on’s girlfriend had also been splashed by beer and he seemed to think I was responsible. That took a few minutes to break free of and by then he’d disappeared into the next room. To make up for lost time, I tried pushing my way past the crowd amassed at the entrance but was shouted at by several of the people gathered there in languages ranging from Italian to Korean before someone took pity on me and said “There is a line you idiot. Wait your turn.” I craned my head around trying desperately to catch a glimpse of him in line. I think I see him several times but can never be sure. A harsh blistering feedback started up, overlaid by crashing cymbals and electronic squeals. It was deafening and the howling vocals don’t help much. As the line slowly inched forward, I was reduced to covering my ears. “There you are!” I looked over to see Magda at my elbow, “I was looking for you!” “What?!” she leaned in shouting in my covered ear, “I said I was looking for you! Where’d you go?!” I didn’t know how to encapsulate the last hour or so and just shook my head in frustration. “Are you enjoying the show?” I nodded. We filed in slowly not making any further conversation. This room was much larger than the previous ones and had a fashion runway down the middle of it and black metal folding chairs along either side of it. Being some of the last spectators in we were able to grab a couple of seats near the end of the jutting platform. When they finally cut the abrasive noise, the change was so abrupt that the silence rippled across the room. People shifted idly in their chairs as spotlights were pointed at the stage leaving the sides in darkness. Minimal house techno flitted about the room. “Do you like fashion?” I asked, turning to look at her. She was sitting very close to me. I studied her face for signs of the old woman but each time I tried to super impose my memories of the fortune teller’s face on to Magda’s, the result was like a patchwork mask, misshapen, a failed graft. “Anorexic women used as clothes hangers – no. But I do like the artistry that goes into the clothes just not the culture that comes with it.” The music faded and Owen’s voice rang out over the PA:
It can feel difficult , in the years after your head
Explodes ; no not like that , but in the faint gestural unlocking
By which the entire landscape in which we consumed entertainment
Had changed . used to draw pictures of hands , legs ,
Eyes , and moved the pages about – to give the appearance
Of motion . to be honest , even that was an anachronism . my pleasures
Are easy . easily fulfilled . easily fleshed out by – well, flesh .
I stand where the snack queue was – or had been . fat circles
Of white chocolate ; long strings , sugar, which i plied
Into my big waiting mouth . Look, basically, it was not so much
About the film as the event of putting myself around it , rather Like
A street, lit up for the purpose of nothing and nobody , the way a prison,
Now turned into a museum about the prison , is lit up at night , by big
White lights, which go weird at their edges.
A line of girls between the ages of 11 and 14 trotted out the length of the runway. All of them wearing risqué underwear. They stood there for several minutes looking straight ahead, every furtive side glance was self-corrected as though they’d been warned off looking around. They looked uncomfortable and scared. “What’s this?” I whispered but Magda was entranced and didn’t answer.
A few gallery assistants went down the line of girls and spray-painted their stomachs with numbers in black. When they were finished with the last one, men in suits, looking more like bouncers or cheap Russian gangsters (gold chains, buzz cuts) came sauntering in and walked the line of young girls. They slowly circled the girls looking them over from head to toe. The atmosphere was menacing and clinical at the same time. Free of sexuality yet charged with lust. The voice of an auctioneer suddenly came tumbling in over the PA system in a rush of syllables. The men raised little white signs to show they wanted to bid for a girl. The auctioneer rambled on as the bidding war got more and more fierce, with little white signs shooting up all over. “What the hell is this?! Is this supposed to be art?!” I turned to Magda but she said nothing in fact she didn’t even acknowledge that I’d spoken, not even after I stared at the side of her face in outrage. The audience was eerily still. Captivated. Mesmerized. I turned back to the stage and some of the men were now fondling and groping the girls’ breasts and buttocks, squeezing their faces to inspect their teeth. All the while the auction was building in intensity, the auctioneer’s tongue deftly roiling over the vowels directing the intensity with his mouth. “What the fuck is this?!” I looked over at Magda “Hey!” I pushed her on the shoulder but she didn’t move, everyone around her, the whole crowd was entranced, no one moved. I saw a young girl crying, in fact several of them were and now the men were trying to take their clothes off and the girls were resisting – suddenly one of them was struck. I stood up “Hey! What the fuck do you think you’re doing?! Leave her alone!” I pushed my way up to the stage and grabbed the guy’s arm. Surprisingly he turned to me with no emotion raised his arms in surrender and backed away. The girl was sobbing by now, reaching for her bra, and I was livid looking around shouting but no one in the crowd moved a muscle, the assault continued on all sides and confused about what to do next I ran over to another girl who was screaming as a man was trying to pull her away with him. “Let her go you fuck!” I tried to separate them but he and I got into it and ended up on the ground the last thing I remember was the auctioneer’s voice amid the growing sound of till drawers ringing up sales, the terror in that girl’s eyes, and the roar of the audience as security gang-piled me pulling me away and hitting me with nightsticks until one lived up to its namesake.
I woke up in an old stone jail chained to the wall. I was dressed in a chemise and had blackened bruises from the iron shackles around my wrists. I winced as I tried to move off the stone floor and realized that my ass was cold because I was naked underneath the nightshirt. In fact, I ached all over. I felt something on my face and realized I had a long beard that stretched down to the middle of my chest. My mind was unable to process all of this – my captivity, the change in my appearance. Thankfully the chain was long and allowed me to range around the room which consisted of a very small barred window (too high up to reach or see out of), a chamber pot, a thin mattress on the ground, a cup, and a bent spoon. Food was slid through a sizable slot in the metal door twice a day along with a large bottle of water. And for the first 28 times I screamed out questions. But I never once got an answer and finally just accepted the food and asked no more. I feel into a deep depression sometimes not even bothering to get up from the mattress to use the chamber pot. I just pissed where I lay, thinking back over everything: the keys, Owen’s doppelganger (or was it him?), the fortune teller and Magda, and unable to make sense of any of it.
But a person can only be depressed for so long and it was while trying to write things with the bent handle of the spoon that I discovered that the wall opposite my bed was easily chipped away. In fact, large chunks of it fell away easily. When it first happened I was afraid someone would see the mess I’d made and thinking back to old movies and books tried to devise a way to smuggle out the soil but couldn’t come up with one and so I just gave up reasoning that aside from the slot at the bottom of the door there was really no other way to check up on what I was up to without opening the door fully and I would have a whole new problem to deal with anyway. Besides I didn’t even know if this tunnel I was digging daily would even lead me anywhere or if the consistency of the walls would continue to be malleable or if the integrity of the tunnels structure would hold up. The truth is that it gave me something to do and when I was in there, by now I had to crawl in it and back out of it, I felt like my thoughts were being funneled in one direction instead of just being cast about the room directionless and unfruitful. When I was down on my bloodied knees in there, coughing from the brown dust and digging away with a spoon I forgot about my stench and the pain of confinement and my body. I forgot about my humiliation and bewilderment. I forgot about the panic attacks I had at night when the walls were closing in and I would recall something from my personal life like my mom or the neighborhood I grew up in – not as a distant memory mixed in with the others – but as something singular and shining, something pulsing with emotion and throbbing with memory. And when I’d dug enough for the day and it was pitch black in the cell. To keep my mind off the mice chattering away around me slowly gnawing my mattress to threads I would lay awake and recite the Blockbuster video catalogue. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, (1947) music by Bernard Hermann, The Searchers, (1956) music by Max Steiner, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, (1982), music by John Williams, Time Bandits, (1981), music by Mike Moran. I thought back to our first VCR. I thought back to my time, first spent perusing, cruising the shelves of video stores, before working at various places around town, before opening a shop of my own. I thought of the films I watched with my mother when she got sick. I thought of — I sat bolt upright. Over the chatter of the mice I could hear him. I could hear his voice mocking me from the other side of the wall. Lines from his poems drifted to me through the wall:
Of white chocolate ; long strings , sugar, which i plied
Into my big waiting mouth . Look, basically, it was not so much
About the film as the event of putting myself around it , rather Like
A street, lit up for the purpose of nothing and nobody , the way a prison,
Now turned into a museum about the prison , is lit up at night , by big
White lights, which go weird at their edges…
I picked up the bent spoon and climbed deep in the tunnel. I could hear him his voice mocking me echoing in my ears. I started digging like never before, the spite driving me to work late into the night. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face but I didn’t care I had to reach that voice, I dug and dug until my arms were throbbing with soreness and my mouth was dry. I cried, screaming and flaying wildly inside the confines of the tunnel. I’d pass out and wake up again and dig some more. Through the exhaustion I could see that the dirt of the wall had turned into a kind of, clay, moist to the touch. This made the digging harder going but even this small change in the monotony of my days reinvigorated me and I worked until my shoulders and forearms felt like they were going to pop, the muscle tearing free from the bone. The clay became even more moist, wet even, and I ditched the spoon, digging at the wall in front of me like a feral subterranean creature. It smelled of chocolate. No not chocolate exactly but like artificial chocolate pudding. I put some in my mouth, tried some, it tasted…edible. Sweet to the taste. I ate more of it. It satisfied. I knew I must be hallucinating but was too tired to backcrawl to eat the mush they served me through the slot and ate more of it anyway. I licked my way forward. I found energy and purpose in gluttony. I chipped away small pieces with my front teeth, I lapped at edges. I plunged my face into it and it gave way, a soft texture. I ate and ate, plunging my head into the hole. My greed knew no bounds as I nearly chocked on it, I wanted to choke on it. I wanted to kill myself with it, to die with that sweet taste in my mouth broken and tired here in this hole I’d dug myself. I pushed my head slowly through the walls until I felt it breach and crowned through the other side. I was running out of air as I made the final push and felt the air rush in from the other side. I gasped several times my breath coming fast. My eyes were closed over with the mud of the wall but I could hear the exclamations of surprise against a soft wall of back chatter. There was some sporadic clapping that gained momentum as arms reached under my shoulders to pull me vertically out of the wall. I didn’t have the strength to struggle I and just lay on the cold tile coughing amid the applause and human sounds of talk and surprise. Someone in uniform came closer and handed me a large bottle of water and a cloth pouring some on my face and wiping at my eyes. Bewildered and feeling exposed I tried my best to cover myself and squinting up into the circle of people and faces standing and bent over me and the whoops and hollers at something. The first face I could make out was Magda’s looking at me with pity and shock. Someone helping me to my feet “There you are! Where you been? I’ve been looking all over for you!” I found myself blinking at Owen. “You alright?” I mouthed something about being fine. His voice faded into the background as people crowded around me asking me about my performance and lining up to talk to me like a celebrity. I scanned the crowd trying to find Magda but my attention was being pulled in too many directions and I lost sight of her. “I hope the food was to your liking I’m not much of a cook.” I focused down at a small woman her mouth cracked and wide, a spiderweb of age lines crisscrossing Magda’s face. “You?” “Freedom” She leaned in her mouth spread wide so I could smell the sweat on her and see her missing bottom teeth “through a keyhole.”
Judson Hamilton lives in Wrocław, Poland. His most recent work includes a book of short stories Gross in Feather, Loud in Voice and a book of poems The New Make-Believe both with Dostoevsky Wannabe. For a more extensive bibliography of his work please visit his website https://neutralspaces.co/judson_hamilton/ Owen Vince is a poet, arts and architecture critic, and small press editor currently living in Denmark. Photograph by Gerry Dincher (Flickr CC).