e were trying to figure out how we got here. Not location — I’m here; Zeke’s there; Eli’s elsewhere. You are, too. Everybody is. We were trying to figure out how we ended up where we are, apart, without any agreement on what here is.
We all agreed about the technology — the bodies and spaces and the health and safety protocols, some of them at least — but we were advanced, Zeke, Eli and me. We were following the signals to the source, the last time everyone was on the same page in the same place.
The motorcade came around the bend slow. We weren’t there. We were still in the substance when it happened, but through the miracle of modern machinery we were able to watch it all together apart, over and over again. Zeke paused the film where he always did.
“This was the last point at which we could all agree,” he said.
We agreed. The car turned, passed behind a sign whose signs were on the other side, and when it reemerged, the bossman had an arm in front of his face. The bossman’s lady was leaning toward him. Something was clearly wrong. Zeke paused again.
“And this is where the disagreement begins,” he said.
“For example,” said Eli, “she was not hot.”
We were well familiar with Eli’s opinions on the bossman’s lady, but the miracle of modern machinery meant we couldn’t stop him. He was the meeting’s host, the one with the reliable connection, the reason we kept him around if you could call it around.
“It’s,” he said, “it’s gaslighting. They treat it as a given she was beautiful and glamorous, the epitome of class, but she was ugly. Eyes so far apart they were on the side of her head, amphibious. Even her own bossman didn’t want anything to do with her. Nothing like our bossman’s wife, who they say is not hot, but who is.”
He didn’t mean the ladybird; he meant the wife of the current bossman, the real one, ours. We don’t recognize their bossman same as they didn’t recognize ours. Anyway you can see her tiddies if you tweak your machine just right.
“We don’t disagree with you on that,” Zeke said.
“Well somebody does,” said Eli. “Everybody else but us.”
“Nonetheless,” said Zeke, “she already looked the way she looked before the last point at which we could all agree.”
“Tadpole,” said Eli. “Toad dressed in a strawberry sheetcake. Not an inch of skin in sight.”
“My point,” said Zeke, “is that she looked essentially the same before as after. Different colors and fabrics. Minor variations in the bob. But the same eyes, same visage, same overall shape on the twenty-second as the twenty-third. This is a private disagreement, individual, not world-historical. Although, again, we agree with you.”
Before Eli could reply, Zeke had the film going again. I, for one, was unprepared, but it was always something of a surprise when the bossman’s brain flapped back from his skull, and then forward, a slab of gray baloney. He kept it running as the bossman’s lady climbed over the back seat, the guard strained toward the trunk, before it looped back to the beginning. Zeke stopped it before the sign. There was no more firsthand information than there ever was. We were forced to rely on “experts.”
The experts had many theories, but really they had two. The first one we grouped under the umbrella term “complexity theory.” There were many variations, but complexity theory posited that some combination of racketeers, palace guards, paramilitary, and freelance communists had collaborated to collapse the bossman’s head and alter the course of history, the fabric of reality. Zeke’s emphases changed from day-to-day, balances tipping depending on his mood or some information he had gleaned on the darkside of his machine, but he was always and squarely in the complex camp. He liked his webs tangled, his mysteries wrapped up in enigmas, wheels within wheels.
Alternatively, we had “simplicity theory,” the lone rifleman with the magic bullets. Simplicity theory was not as simple as it seemed — the rifleman would have had to lock, load, and unload at near-inhuman speed, the bullets to perform impossible feats of perforation and repenetration. Zeke had not coined the name to denote the sequence of actions the theory posited; no, he thought that anyone who embraced it was simple-minded. He never said this directly to Eli, who was all in on simplicity theory, but it was clear enough in his manner. For his part, Eli seemed to gravitate toward simplicity because theory itself detracted from what he considered the real concern, which was naked pictures of the real, our, bossman’s lady.
Even now he was sharing one on the screen. I hadn’t seen it before. Neither Zeke or I had any idea how he kept coming up with them. In this one, she waved an AR-15 one-armed while a stream of what looked to be piss fell from between her legs, individual drops bouncing up from the white-tiled floor, frozen in high definition, spattering her bare feet. The piss so focal that it was a minute before I noticed the swastika pasties over her nipples. Zeke quickly replaced it with the original video.
“Destroy that image,” he said. “Wipe your machine memory. It could be used as evidence to support the feverish fantasies of our enemies.”
Of course, the enemy did not technically need the imagery to support their fantasies, and the idea that we were not being surveilled made Zeke sound like an adherent of simplicity theory. Everyone lived on faith alone, a steady diet of symbolic gesture — the enemy, Eli, even Zeke. Everyone but me. I was meant to break the tie.
For years I had been meant to break the tie, but neither complexity nor simplicity appealed to me. Complexity theory treated the world as simple, and simplicity theory made it too complex. At one point I figured I’d never get around to deciding — journey as destination and whatnot. It gave us something to do, and no one seemed to mind.
But recently a few of our guys had caused some trouble, stormed the palace in silly costumes and had themselves a little parade. No harm no foul was how I saw it. In fact, some of those pictures kind of cracked me up. But the other team said it had cracked the foundations of the Republic and defiled the sanctity of our secular temple or somesuch. Both, of course, could not be true. We had a new urgency in getting answers; we had to figure out how the old bossman died and quick. It was our job to reassert a consensus on reality, and as tiebreaker it would ultimately fall to me. Fortunately, Eli’s picture had given me an idea.
“Get that filth back on the screen,” I said.
“Et tu, Tom-Tom?” said Zeke.
“Bear with me,” I said. “Eli?”
At first I thought that Eli had misunderstood me. Filth. Bare with me. Because the next thing we saw on screen was Eli’s dick. But it had all happened too quickly. He was already naked and erect. It looked huge, but I think that was a trick of perspective. He probably still had the images up on his own machine and had been cranking that hog the whole time.
“Goddammit,” said Zeke, “what is this colloquy coming to!”
“The other filth, Eli,” I said. “The bossman’s lady.”
The purple head bobbed toward and away as he tried to find the share button, but all was soon well, and I resolved to pass over the preceding few moments in silence. The still was back on the screen.
“Can you magnify it, Eli?” I said.
Eli zoomed in, toward the crotch, naturally. But the crotch couldn’t tell us anything. It might have been any crotch.
“Not the crotch,” I said. “The pee. The pee on the ground, where it’s splashing back up.” “So that’s your thing?” said Zeke.
“Good enough for the bossman,” said Eli.
“Bossman doesn’t have a piss fetish,” I said. “Everybody knows he’s a germophobe.” “Urine is sterile,” said Eli. “Ever find yourself with a gaping wound and no disinfectant you just get somebody to pee on you.”
“Sounds like you’re the one with the fetish,” I said.
“I got aaaall the kinks,” said Eli.
“Long as it doesn’t involve actual human contact,” said Zeke.
For a second it felt just like old times, like we could have kept up the riffing forever. But old times were gone. There were documents to be analyzed, decisions to be made, epiphanies to wallow in, though I didn’t know that yet, just had a hunch.
“This isn’t about sex,” I said. “It’s about the pee. Look, those drops cast a shadow.”
I gave them a minute to take it in, then told Eli to Zoom up to the tits, the nipples in particular. Just as I’d expected — the electrical tape they’d used to make the swastikas had texture and gleam.
“These aren’t the sexy parts,” said Eli, but I deduced from the delay when I told him to move up to the face that he had maintained his arousal and was probably on the verge of climax.
There it was. The dark, squinty eyes. The almost-archaic smile that failed to indicate any particular emotion. The mass of wavy hair. What there was not was any indication that the head had been surgically implanted, that the photo had been doctored.
“You’re the expert, Eli. What do you say?” I said.
Eli was still panting as his mic came back on. He answered between gasps.
“I never did know her to be into nazi stuff,” he said, “and boobs can vary in size at different parts of a woman’s cycle, not to mention time of life. Wax job is meticulous like you’d expect with her. Abs look great. It all checks out for me.”
“Just what are you getting at, Tom-Tom?” said Zeke.
“We all know,” I said, “that our bossman’s, the real bossman’s, lady did not pose for that photograph, and yet Zeke and I agree that it’s real. It’s real; it just never happened.”
“And what does that have to do with the purpose of this meeting?” said Zeke.
“Put the film back on,” I said. “Slow it down so we can watch it frame-by-frame.”
He did so, and as the car crawled forward, I told them what was on my mind.
“The motorcade never actually moved this slowly, and yet here we are, watching it, because that’s what we want to see. What we won’t see is a bullet. The Carcano has a muzzle velocity of 700 meters-per-second, down to 550 at 100 yards. Zapruder’s camera recorded the shooting at 18.3 frames-per-second. It’s no surprise that the bullet isn’t captured on film, but it isn’t impossible that it could have been. What I’m proposing is that Eli’s photo exists, not because it ever happened, but because the other side wants to believe our bossman is into fascism and watersports, and because certain guys on our side, Eli, for example, actually are into fascism and watersports.”
The old bossman’s brain was flapping very slowly now, defying laws of motion.
“In the same way, this footage exists because it needed to. Maybe a gun fired, maybe several, maybe none at all. Maybe a bullet hit him; maybe it didn’t. The bossman’s brain exploded because somebody needed his brain to explode. Anyway, that’s my vote.”
There was silence from the other nodes. Zeke neglected to pause the film and it cycled through again, another thing that never happened but that we witnessed every day. The limousine inched toward the sign. In that time, I allowed myself to imagine I’d convinced them, that together we would convince the world. I wasn’t sure Eli would be able to get his brain around anything that didn’t include his dick, but I knew Zeke was capable, if he could get over the fact that I hadn’t voted his way.
It turned out he couldn’t.
“That,” he said, “is retarded, Tom-Tom. I’m going to call it dum-dum theory, after you. I’m gonna call you Dum-Dum.”
I stood my ground.
“Just a few months back, a bunch of our guys had a party in the palace and the other team said they beat one of the guards to death with a fire extinguisher. Video all over the place, no sign of a fire extinguisher, no real sign of violence at all. Coroner’s report said no blunt trauma. That guard died because somebody had to die. You gotta let go of complexity, Zeke. Cause and effect got nothing to do with it. Happening has nothing to do with it. They turned reality itself into a machine.”
As soon as I said it, I lost the connection. At first I worried Zeke or Eli had cut me off, but we’d had rowdier discussions over the years, and Zeke had just vowed to call me Dum-Dum, implying a continuation of our relations. I tried to rejoin and got no signal. I suspected Zeke and Eli were blocked too. I had come too close to power. Whoever had been listening to us knew I had cracked the code.
But it was too late for power. Power’s done. As soon as I put what they were doing into words, the system crumbled, cause and effect came rushing back in. For example, I wanted to reconnect with my friends, but I could not make that happen just by wishing for it. I could not make it happen at all. Maybe my friends were never real. Maybe they had only existed because I wanted them to.
This is true for you, too. Try standing outside and wishing for death with all your heart like I did when I realized I would never be able to connect with Zeke and Eli again. Doesn’t work anymore, does it? From now on we have to get our naked pictures the old fashion way. Meet up. Point and shoot. The meet up, that’s the hard part. We will all only ever live or die by blunt trauma and stray projectile at the end of a vast conspiracy or random act of rage. No more wishing makes it so. And this is all thanks to me.
Goddammit I miss my friends.
Christian TeBordo has published four novels and two collections of short fiction. A new novel, The Apology, is forthcoming this fall from Astrophil Press at the University of South Dakota. He lives and teaches in Chicago.