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by Fred D. White
. . . the spectre of solidities Whose substances are sand. --Emily Dickinson
Thats a crock of doo-doo. --Orestes Pugh
It was a last resort, an act of desperation -- but much better, Burgess reasoned, to undergo alternative therapy than to be overcome by existential despair. His wife, Dolores, while exasperated by his dead-of-night death terrors (amorphous as the globs of clay out of which he was struggling to release the ancient gods), patiently continued to soothe his tormented soul. Write it out, she advised; but he could only produce disconnected fragments of his nightmares and wound up slamming his head against the wall, draft confetti at his feet.
His therapist was Orestes Pugh, a mop-haired, bug-eyed little man who once tried to found a new religion based on the surreal visions of Rene Magritte. Once released from Camarillo State Hospital, he attended the Venice (CA) College of Alternative Therapy and eventually set up private practice. This venture almost ended before it began when Monique, his assistant, electrocuted herself on a defective cortical stimulator that Pugh had invented for his practice.
Inner turmoil my backside, Pugh muttered to Dolores when she and Burgess showed up for a joint session. Your husband is a self-indulgent prig, not even a narcissist -- hes not that romantic! By the gods how do you put up with him? Then he tapped her shoulder, adding, bushy eyebrows atwitter a la Groucho, a gorgeous looker like you?
Dolores shrugged. I find moody artists sexy.
Burgess suspected that he loved Dolores more than she loved him. Yes, she had been largely successful in warding off his existential despair and in helping him endure his wretched day job as order-taker-dispatcher for a medical supply company by encouraging him to work on his mythological clay figurines every evening after dinner. But sometimes it felt as though she were merely nursing -- or worse -- mothering him.
The next morning Burgess found himself standing before that grand inquisitor, the bathroom mirror. Have you forgotten that in the next cosmic moment you are going to be a moldering skull? his reflection reminded him.
Why rub my face in it? he replied. The mirror face only smirked. As he shaved he began mentally filling medical supply purchase orders: sutures and surgical soap, vaginal specula and X-ray film and disposable latex surgical gloves, catgut sutures, tongue depressors --
Now he found himself munching on a stale croissant and gazing out the window at a group of kids swinging their bats and tossing a baseball into the air as they headed toward the playground. For them time was a hot streak of pure energy propelling them forward.
Now he found himself gazing at the empty sidewalk.
A flicker of spacetime and suddenly he found himself mesmerized before his unfinished Medusa.
Now he -- this was happening to him with frightful regularity, the moments of his days having lost all continuity, having burst into a scrambled mosaic -- found himself in the attic, rummaging for relics of his lost life. At one point, while opening a box of unsorted photographs, he felt a fearful jolt of non-recognition: Burgess had no idea who he was.
Once again he found himself paying Orestes Pugh a visit.
Too much self-awareness makes Jack a dull, not to mention pathetic bastard, Pugh grumbled down at him. What the hell do you expect me to do? You need to get involved! Meet people!
He was reclined on Pughs velvet-cushioned settee, gazing at the Margritte on the wall across the room: The Treachery of Images, which bore the caption, Ceci nest pas une pipe.
Hey, I like the painting, doc.
It goes well with my earth tones, dont you agree? Besides, Im a pipe smoker -- and Pugh whipped out a briar pipe exactly like the one in the painting.
I meant, I like the idea.
Pugh leaned over him like a vulture, eyes bulging wide behind grease-smeared bifocals. I dont give a crap about the idea. And neither did Magritte! All that matters is the reality of the imagined object! The thing itself! No ideas but in things. Know who said that?
Burgess groaned. William Carlos Williams. Cold plums in the ice box, so delicious! Red wheelbarrows glazed with rain water beside the frigging white chickens -- grossly overrated poet. He should have spent more time yanking out kids tonsils.
You could learn something from him! He knew the difference between subject and object, by God.
Burgess sat up. Listen, I dont think I can endure any more of your shrinkage today.
Fine. I could use a break from you.
Burgess glared at him. In fact, Im beginning to suspect that you may be a figment of my own depraved imagination.
Oh please, not another solipsistic seizure. Pugh pushed him back down with the flat of his hand. I havent the patience to discuss your reality shifting fantasies today.
Whats to discuss? Im simply claiming the right to my own reality.
A key point of dis-pu-ta-tion, my boy, Pugh croaked in his pathetic W.C. Fields imitation. Now wait here. He darted into a back room and wheeled out a frightful machine on a steel cart.
What in Gods name is that?
Nothing in Gods name, sonny. You are about to experience state-of-the-art, neural-net subliminal interfacing. A vortex for your cortex! He pulled out a headset and untangled the spaghetti of colored wires. Just give me a few minutes here Im afraid I lack poor Moniques techniques, may she rest in peace. But not to worry! If I accidentally electrocute you, Dolores will be fully covered. He hastily smeared electrode paste on Burgesss forehead and temples. Today, my boy, he whined, youre gonna take leave of your delusional little self once and for all. Pughs fingers danced across the keyboard of his computer terminal --
-- and Burgess found himself surrounded by devastation: buildings reduced to rubble, flames shooting out of charred automobiles, people running and screaming in all directions. He began running as well, tripping over bloody and mutilated bodies. A siren was blaring. He struggled to speak, but could not move his mouth. A scream built up inside of him. Finally --
Out of the yellowish-brown swirl of noxious gasses materialized a pair of bespectacled eyes. T. J. Ecklepugh! Jesus, kid, calm down. Youre the one whos supposed to be in control here. The survivors are waiting for you to save them!
Get me out of here! Burgess screamed -- whether outwardly or inwardly he could not tell. The devastated cityscape began to shimmer, then it faded into Armstrong acoustic ceiling tiles, fluorescent lighting, The Treachery of Images, and the manic face of Orestes Pugh.
That was your path to liberation, my boy. An escape from times unrelenting clutches. With my help you can become your own deity in that universe. He rubbed his chin. Hmm, come to think of it, if my practice doesnt improve, I may opt for a similar scenario myself.
Please get these fucking wires off of me.
Oh, youre gonna be a tough but satisfying nut to crack, bubby.
Now he found himself in his own bed, assaulted by surreal visions: Pughs face shimmering inside the flames of a burning house, enormous boulders suspended in mid-air, flowers shaped like birds His head was throbbing.
And the next day, more fantastic visions: apples the size of houses sitting in the street, people with faces on both sides of their heads, nocturnal shadows spreading, even though the sky was bright blue and speckled with cotton-white clouds.
Now he was back in Pughs office. What are you doing to my brain?
Pugh, behind his desk, was playing with a slinky. Treating your existential fear and trembling.
But I keep getting these nightmare visions --
Pugh tossed the slinky up in the air, caught the end of it with one hand and deftly accordioned the ends together. Starting to sound like a brain tumor.
Burgess felt his gut curdle. Tell me youre joking.
Im joking. My guess is that its growing inside a part of the brainstem we dont know much about. Seems to be triggering aphasia, distortion of real-time experience. It will slowly destroy your short-term memory and your motor control. Eventually, you will suffer severe convulsions, lapse into a coma, and die.
Whew! For a minute, doc, I thought my condition was serious.
In Magrittes happy universe, everything is jest, mboy.
I think youre full of shit.
I dont deny that.
And all of this -- including you -- has got to be one freaking bad trip.
Youll wish that were true when you get my bill.
Yes. Your only hope is --
I dont want to hear it!
Then dont listen! Your only hope is Transposition.
Whatever the hell that means.
For all you know, Pugh smirked, pulling out his pipe, you could be in Transposition this very moment. Come to think of it, we all could be. He gazed suspiciously at the pipe.
Just tell me this: Am I going to die soon?
Soon, soon -- what is soon? He threw his hands up in exasperation. For some people a week is soon. For others, twenty years is soon.
Burgess watched him open a pouch of tobacco, fill his pipe, and tamp it down with the blunt end of a pencil. So youre giving me between one week and twenty years left to live? Is that what Im hearing?
Heavy puffs of pipe smoke as Pugh got his pipe going. Mboy, you could be dead by sundown.
Burgess stood up -- and discovered with disbelief and embarrassment that he was in his pajamas. He gasped, gesturing at his polka dot shorties. What the -- ?
Pugh shrugged, set his pipe down, and tossed his slinky high into the air. As he did so, his entire body flickered.
And he found himself in bed with Dolores, his arms wrapped tightly around her. Honey, that bastard is trying to kill me! he moaned
Zhurfth, said Dolores, still asleep.
He shook her frantically and she popped awake. Wha --
Weve got to get out of here. Now. While theres still time. I could be dead by morning.
Honey, have you lost your mind completely?
Hes been using me as a guinea pig for his insane alternative therapy experiments.. Hes already written my death warrant.
Oh, honey she put a hand to his forehead; he flung it away.
Stop patronizing me. Im dying of a brain tumor, and I think he caused it.
Oh baby. Well get a second opinion first thing tomorrow morning. She flopped down onto her pillow and fell back to sleep.
* * *
Burgess stumbled out of bed, groped his way to the kitchen, fumbled for the light switch but couldnt find it. Then the floor disappeared and he was walking on cold, wet grass. A lurid green light filled the sky. Wormy branches with spindly leaves occupied the space where the side of the house should have been. He took a few steps; the ground felt spongy. Where the hell was he?
For starters, my boy, youre no longer on Earth. Pughs whiny voice seemed to emanate from inside his head.
He gazed into the center of the green glow. What is this, Pugh, another of your experiments? I refuse to be your lab rat.
You prefer instead agonizing death by malignant brain tumor?
I prefer a second opinion. Get me outta here.
Youre on Sigma Draconis Six, bubby. Truly freaky life forms. Relax and enjoy the show. Suddenly one of the worm-branches shimmered into an efflorescent humanoid torso with an ovoid head sprouting several snakelike appendages from neck and scalp. He was reminded at once of his unfinished Medusa. Isnt she a beaut? Pugh hissed through what seemed vaguely like a mouth on the creature. She extended one of the tendrils toward him; it thickened into an arm and sprouted long, tapered fingers. I am real, she said; the voice this time was external, not Pughs.
He watched himself extend his own arm, fingers outstretched until it touched the creatures. A delicious warmth immediately flooded through him. Oh yes, he replied. You are real, and you feel wonderful.
Sorry, pal, shes taken. Pughs sinister chortling filled Burgesss head as the creature disintegrated into a swirl of pixels before his eyes.
* * *
The Draconian suns -- one a bloated red giant, the other a blue dwarf -- were beating down on Burgess with intolerable intensity. He found himself inside a thicket of giant ferns. Pterodactyl-like creatures with iridescent wings swooped over him. For the past several days (or were they weeks or months or even years?) his efforts to communicate with Pugh had been futile, the silence seeming almost Godlike. Had Pugh condemned him to Eternity in this surreal universe? He would choose premature death without hesitation.
End this infernal program! he yelled at the steamy canopy of ferns the size of Ponderosas.
It was hopeless. One of the pterodactyls landed alongside him. Its eyes were fiery immense sapphires. Hop on! it hissed.
Christ -- Pugh, is that you?
No time for questions. Get on before I eat you.
Burgess approached the beast cautiously. Where do you propose to take me?
Better hurry, mboy. Being eaten alive is an uncomfortable way to die.
He leaped onto the pterodactyls leathery back and it instantly soared upward, straight through the canopy of giant fern fronds. Burgess had to gouge his fingers into the animals scaly hide to keep from falling off. It twisted its saurian head back to take a good look at him and smiled, revealing long rows of flashing needle teeth. This sure is better than being dead, aint it?
Let me die so Ill have a basis for comparison; then Ill let you know.
A word of advice, mboy: Never get sarcastic with anyone who has more teeth than you.
Please put an end to this absurdity. I prefer to die, all right?
The leathery hide of the pterodactyl suddenly became a mass of wet gray clay upon a potters wheel. He was home! He watched as his hands began tearing and twisting and kneading the clay. Now it seemed as if he had been working forever, and that his Medusa was going to writhe to life the moment he completed her.
On and on he labored. The desire to complete her became overwhelming -- together with the fear. How would he be able to gaze upon her and live?
Time passed, warm and palpable, like a tropical breeze. When he next gazed into the mirror his face had turned hideous: All the color had been leeched away, even out of his eyes -- the irises were a colorless, watery gel, the pupils barely discernable pinpricks. His skin had become craggy, his hair a filament white.
The story is this, pontificated Pugh. Not only are you dying from a brainstem tumor, youre disintegrating as well.
Disintegrating. I dont know what you mean. A nervous breakdown?
Please! Leave the diagnosing to me. Your multitudinous selves are scattering in all directions, like newborn spiders. Soon there will be nothing left of you except a withered sac.
Well, can you do something?
Of course! But nothing will help. You refuse Transposition. I guess the only thing remaining is for you to quit that dreadful day job of yours and devote your few remaining days to sculpting.
She -- it -- is eating me alive.
Pugh shrugged condescendingly. Then spend more time on her -- it.
I need to make a living.
Your living rubs your face in the stench of human mortality, in this disgusting veil of misery you prefer to call reality. Its enough to make one want to put a gun to his head.
All right, Burgess sighed. Then help me.
With what? Putting a gun to your head?
No .with Transposition.
* * *
She would not let him rest. She dared him to finish her, yet defied his every effort to do so. Each serpent-strand of clay hair began to wriggle the instant he shaped it. He flinched away in disgust -- and the next thing he knew, soldiers were spreading out his arms. He screamed out in unbelievable agony as they pounded nails into the palms of his hands, and bound his wrists with thick rope. Then they hoisted up the cross, and thunder split open the heavens. The words consummatum est broke from his parched lips. Pugh materialized at his feet, jangling coins under his toga. He gazed up at Burgess with mock reverence. I may eventually believe in you instead of Magritte!
Why dont you just let me die?
Because, mboy, theres no such thing as death in a Magrittean universe.
Is that what this is?
What -- you actually thought you were Christ on the cross? My dear boy, you are more delusional than I realized. Not even this is real. And suddenly Burgess found himself sprawled on the floor of his den. Looming over him was his Medusa, serpentine hair writhing. I am complete now, she hissed, caressing his head. He felt his own flesh turning into cold, wet clay.
Now he felt himself being eased into bed. A strong medicinal smell permeated the room. Now he could make out the face, except that a surgical mask -- type B, disposable -- covered the mouth and nose. The arms tucked the blanket under his chin.
He tried to reach out, to grasp an arm -- but only a withered hand emerged from the sheets, trembled, then dropped back down.
You have absolutely nothing to worry about.
Are you -- are you -- ?
The figure backed away slightly and dissolved into floating pixels.
This cant be real.
Oh, it gets even worse, bubby.
Another voice, far away and alien. Do you want to try something even more surreal?
And another: Naw, lets play this one out.
Very well. Resume.
* * *
You have absolutely nothing to worry about.
Are you -- Are you -- ?
The figure backed away slightly and dissolved into floating pixels.
This cant be real.
Oh, it gets even worse, bubby.
* * *
The room was growing darker and colder; the walls were fading. Burgess tried to generate enough strength to extricate himself from this -- null-space purgatory? schizophrenic nightmare? and somehow find his way back home.
Out of the darkness appeared the silvery face of a goddess. Perhaps it was Selena, The Moon Goddess of his fantasies! He would liberate her body from the cold gray clay, reanimate her with his passion, and by so doing release himself once and for all from these scenarios-within-scenarios euphemistically known as life. He lay back on the pillow, calmed with his sense of mission at last. If life consisted simply of a-temporal flickers of artistic jouissance, then he would live his life to the hilt.
A delicious resolve settled over him. His Goddess loomed over him now, caressed his head, parted her gray lips, and whispered two words that turned his blood to ice:
Story copyright 2002 by Fredwphd@aol.com
Illustration copyright 2002 by Kenn Brown firstname.lastname@example.org
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