AFTER THEIR DISASTROUS TOUR OF Europe, which had necessitated nothing less than complete rebirth from the womb of the witch who had claimed to be their mother, the Brothers Squimbop returned to America, disembarking at the edge of a New World that they could already see would never be new again. They quickly abandoned the East, having lived out many lifetimes in both the slums and the penthouses of Boston and New York, to say nothing of their wild years in Philly, and thought to return to Arkansas and Louisiana, reprising their tired roles as shyster professors on the ever-narrowing community college circuit.
But as the train took them down past Wilmington and DC, then inland via Raleigh and Charlotte, the situation looked even more dire than they’d remembered, or perhaps it was simply that, after all they’d either caused or witnessed in Europe, they’d gotten their hopes up too high about the possible sanctity of return.
The assumption that one side would look different from the other … where did it come from? They wondered, as the train sped Westward, deeper into the territories.
The vestiges of settlement, the motels and fast-food chains and, indeed, the waterlogged community colleges where they’d once taught, or pretended to teach, were no longer visible. They could see nothing from the train windows except bare foundations, burned cars, and pits full of bodies whitened with lime. Stock material, they thought, powerless to prevent their next scheme from beginning to take shape. It’s amazing, they went on thinking, that there’s even still a train.
As soon as they thought this, the train, if there’d been one, tossed them out. They found themselves kicking bottles and syringes along the platform of a trashed station under a hazy blue sun, in a scrubland they took to be Missouri, or possibly Kansas, which they had at one time—from the dense solitude of a German forest, at one of their lowest ebbs—imagined to be the place of their birth, a sanctified land to which they feared they might never return.
And yet, they thought, here we are.
They sat down on the platform edge and gazed at the tracks extending away in both directions, the two horizons carbon copies of one another, like the landscape had been pressed together, then pulled apart by a lazy creator eager to double his every half-lucid inkling.
Speaking of half-lucid inklings, the Brothers thought, what about heading out West? All the way, this time. We haven’t pulled that one in a while, and it looks we’re already halfway there. They nodded, amenable to the notion, though uncertain what, if any, gold remained for the taking in what they remembered, from lifetimes ago, as the hills of Nevada and California.
They groaned to their feet, each hoping the other would help him up, and began to walk along the tracks, toward what they could only hope was the sunset, though the bluish sun appeared likewise to be copied across both horizons—unless, they thought, it’s more like a yolk that’s broken and dribbled across the sky, smearing splotchlike pseudo-suns in every direction. The undefined singularity or multiplicity of it is but a version of our own conundrum, wherein we are both ourselves and each other, so that ….
But they both started cackling, at once sincerely and performatively, before they could follow this line of reasoning through to its no doubt ridiculous conclusion.
Attempting to return to more terrestrial comedy, as they always did when their thinking drew too close to the raw nerve of their own uncertain nature, the Brothers reminisced, openly and incoherently, about their last ventures out West, when they’d sold … or stolen … or dug up, or, indeed, smuggled copious quantities of ….
But the nouns wouldn’t come. They staggered, back in their usual state of dehydration, and found that they could recall the moods and something of the scenes they’d inhabited in their previous Western escapades, the glitz, the glamor, but none of the content. No faces, no names, no money. Nothing but a generalized whoosh of hustle, the thrill of pulling off a scheme in a distant, unsupervised corner of a still-nascent empire, in a lifetime now buried beneath many others.
They could picture an empty theater, and, if they strained, they could hear distant echoes and see shadows flitting at the edges of the stage, but they could not draw any closer to reconstructing the specifics of the act performed there.
So, they lumbered on, panting now, under the dimming bluish sun, or suns, and attempted to focus on the immediate landscape surrounding them, stuffing their wayward shared attention back into whatever passed for the present.
Missouri, or Kansas, by contrast, appeared as nothing but specifics, chunks of concrete and rubber, purged of all mood and atmosphere, to say nothing of narrative. Indeed, the only narrative the Brothers could gin up was that their rebirth in the German forest had been botched, or only carried out partway—so that perhaps everything we’re seeing here, each Brother thought, is nothing but a manifestation of our own condition, as if this country appears only partly-made because that is the state that my poor Brother and I have fallen into, as we struggle even now to finish being born, hovering somewhere between German and Kansan heritage, our story somewhere between that of two immigrant Brothers eager to seek our fortune in the booming West, and two degenerate American grifters, returning in defeat from a disastrous spate of pillage abroad.
Still, each Brother looked at the other and thought, it’s his problem more than mine. He’s the half-made one, the gimp, which makes me his Keeper, dragging him through this desert of our discontent until, at long last, we can bathe in the healing blue waters of the Pacific, and thereby be made new again, and once again attempt to set out in life in such a way that some traction at last becomes attainable.
Relieved to have established this preliminary schema, they trekked on foot through dead town after dead town, stopping to rummage for sustenance in abandoned gas stations and convenience stores, continually reminding themselves that they were advancing Westward, in line with all ambitious Americans, however much they privately feared they were moving instead in narrowing circles, between one dead town and the next, somewhere on the Kansas-Missouri line.
Here and there roving bands of refugees crossed their path, cowed, silent families with faces scrunched inward against the blowing dust, fearful of the gazes of assorted shamans clacking among them with the shrunken heads of former shamans around their necks. These shaman-headed shamans marched in front as if to lead the procession, but something shifty in their gait suggested to the Brothers that they knew the refugees followed only reluctantly, and only because they were all obligated to march in the same direction, ever Westward, out of the scalding interior.
The Brothers averted their attention, uncertain whether these people felt as doomed as they appeared, nor quite what the nature of this doom might prove to be, and, more to the point, whether any aspect of it was contagious. We are, lest we forget, they strove to remember, holy men ourselves, vested with the power to blight the entire European continent, to summon demons from the ether and set ancient villages ablaze with our barbed tongues. Perhaps, then, it is not too much to imagine that here in this new continent we may, indeed, once again stake our claim to the mythic, and profit accordingly.
As they mulled over what the possible return of their own shamanic power might portend, the Brothers trudged past a series of signs that all read SALTON SEA, KEEP OUT. Once, twice, three times, then five times, then ten, they passed the salt-crusted banks of a dead ocean, rows of eviscerated tilapia lined up in the sun along its edges, verging onto wide expanses of shanties, tents, and trailers with blacked-out windows. The Brothers closed and rubbed their eyes and opened them again, hoping to resolve the question of whether they were wandering in circles or passing through a blighted district of Salton Seas, a wide, nameless territory stretching between where they were and the coast they longed to reach, but, of course, all that emerged were more signs that read SALTON SEA, KEEP OUT.
When they’d grown too exhausted to continue in this fashion, they lay down on the granular banks of one of these dead oceans, closed their eyes, and prayed for deliverance, frightened and ashamed to imagine their new venture foundering so soon after its inception.
They awoke in the grueling sun of the new day and rose to their feet, determined to leave the last of the Salton Seas behind. We got a little turned around, they told themselves, as they set out due West, the morning sun to their backs. We got a little turned around, is all, they repeated, throughout the day, dreaming of the cool Pacific and the sun setting, once and for all, over the horizon.
Their resolve paid off, as the escapade appeared willing to admit them into a new phase. Now they wobbled past enclaves of mansions behind row upon row of glass-topped fencing, where the Brothers couldn’t help but stop and, half-crazed with hunger, look across the lawns toward the barred windows, behind which they pictured the cowed wealthy holed up like hermit crabs, praying that whatever this was would soon blow over.
Fat chance, the Brothers thought. They looked around, at the shuttered mansions on one side and the orphan trains on the other, the shaman-headed shamans marching up ahead, muttering unholy spells, and the Brothers decided, as perhaps they often had before, that only they were qualified to tell the nation’s story back to itself, and thereby to offer some form of clarity to those who were still in a position to absorb it. If they hadn’t needed us, the Brothers reasoned, we wouldn’t have been called back.
This realization coincided, perhaps suspiciously, with their arrival in the outskirts of what they were prepared to consider, at last, the city of Los Angeles, so long dreamed of and so long deferred. They explored one remote neighborhood after another, watching the alternation of loud ruin and hushed opulence continue, until, once again, the sun began to set and they bedded down beneath a piece of corrugated tin siding in a mood of tentative calm.
Their dreams roamed back and forth throughout the space, as they’d come to see it, that separated those sequestered in their mansions from those trudging through the dust, variously eating one another and being eaten, as the delicate interplay of hunger, weakness, and circumstance dictated.
In the morning, they staggered into a bakery where an old woman stood guard over a tray of ancient sweet rolls. She grinned at them and, for a moment, something of the witch they’d encountered in Europe, from whose womb they’d reemerged deep in the Black Forest crossed her face. They locked eyes with her, looking through one woman and into the other. When she smiled, they took it as her blessing. We are on the right track, Brother, each thought, as they returned their attention to the surface woman, who now contained no hint of deeper presence. If it seems we reached the West Coast too soon, it’s merely an understandable sadness at this great nation having contracted over the years, shriveling in the merciless heat.
They bought the last two rolls with a few coins they’d scrounged from the train station ash tray, and bit into them as they walked out of the bakery and onto the dusty path behind it, past two dogs chained to a tire, with the rising sun, once again, on their backs.
They walked and munched and danced unselfconsciously from side to side, growing jaunty as a sense of clarity began to rise in them. The apparition of their mother boded well. A sign that we’re almost home.
The word home stopped them dead beside a plaque in the dusty path that read SPAHN MOVIE RANCH. They stood there for as long as they could bear to, reading and rereading those three words, in the same font as the SALTON SEA plaques, trying to remember where they’d heard or seen the name before, and why they’d been triggered by the thought of home.
The spell broke as they proceeded deeper into the Spahn Movie Ranch.
They walked among the remnants of shacks and stables, the frayed rope of a gallows flapping in the wind, and a horse graveyard in a ditch to one side of the dusty gravel path. Beyond this, where the path split off toward more sheds and shacks to the left and right, was the foundation and part of the first floor of what looked like it had once been, or was once going to be, a handsome, multistory wooden house. A mansion, nearly, though less opulent than many of those they’d seen on the way here. A humble mansion, they thought, as they climbed over cement chips and stray nails, hoisting themselves in through the gutted front door to stand in the unfinished foyer. A mansion for workers, not retirees. A homestead.
This thought, wherever it came from, rang true. Extending the prospect of work into the darker back rooms of the sprawling first floor, they uncovered a trove of camera and audio equipment beneath a wool blanket in the center of what they’d begun to call our command center.
Here, they decided, keeping their eyes off of one another so as not to move, just yet, from thought to speech and then speech to action, we will set up our equipment. Whatever we produce will be produced in here.
They stood in silence after this decision had articulated itself, waiting to hear if any follow-up was forthcoming.
When the silence had gone on so long that it threatened to turn sinister, they looked at one another, and Jim, taking on this name for the first time since their return, said, suddenly overeager to speak, “Let’s go out back and see if there’s a truck. We’re gonna need one.”
Joe, also newly renamed, shuddered to hear his Brother speak aloud in this manner, and to realize that he otherwise wouldn’t have known what Jim was about to say. We remain in nameless unison as long as we can, he thought. And then …
He swallowed and grabbed the edge of a wide oak desk to keep from falling over, still unwilling to hear his own voice in that enclosed, abandoned space.
The Brothers, having resumed a silence that now felt performative, set out in the truck they’d found behind a storage shed, after hot-wiring it with a coat hanger they’d found lying on the passenger’s seat, as if it had been used for this purpose many times before. A suitcase of wilted cash, found likewise in this shed, was nestled beneath Jim’s feet as he drove.
They set to cruising the outskirts of what they could just barely remember was once called Hollywood, up one broad, deserted boulevard and then down another, past tent cities and open-air markets where goats and donkeys hung skinless over plastic buckets, their hoofs wrapped in chains. They watched the destitute swarm around them, jockeying for position while they waited, the Brothers assumed, for the butcher to appear and begin to divvy up the pieces according to whatever system had been roughed out in lieu of raw chaos.
They idled by the side of the road, just out of earshot, and began to confer. “Something happened here, Brother,” Jim said to Joe, his tone rich with the same authoritativeness he had affected back in the command center. Joe nodded and, going with the riff, picking up on its rhythm—I can play the slow Brother, if that’s our shtick for now, he conceded, I am man enough for that—replied, “Something, indeed. Something only we can reveal.”
A familiar groove began to reassert itself between them, a pattern of banter they hadn’t felt since early in their European tour. They relaxed, for the first time since that episode had gotten away from them. “Phew,” Jim said. “I think we’re gonna be okay. I think we can show these people what happened here, and, by showing them, make it true.”
“And make a buck or two.”
They looked down at the suitcase of cash and saw what needed to be done, grinning for an imaginary audience.
They cruised back to the Ranch with three new hires in the truck, two women and a man, perhaps some kind of family. When they got out, they reiterated what they’d explained at the market, once the butcher had finally arrived and the crush of supplicants and starving children had closed in, and then dispersed with veiny chunks in hand.
“So we just … pretend with these?” one of the women asked, looking from one Brother to the other, then over at the pile of pickaxes, awls, and sharp shovels they’d unloaded from one of the tool sheds. Her expression hovered between intrigue and suspicion as Jim nodded. Joe, meanwhile, was already plugging the camera and microphones into an extension cord they’d spooled out of the unfinished house, following the orders that Jim had given on the drive back.
“That’s correct,” Jim continued, while Joe warmed up the machines. “For this sequence, you three are deputy leaders in the Revolution, plotting the overthrow of the overlords of Old Hollywood. Taking it back for the people.”
They nodded without evincing comprehension. “The graft and corruption have grown unchecked too long!” Jim shouted, intimating that they should shout this as well, once the camera was rolling.
A silence ensued while the actors looked down at their feet, over to the swinging gallows, then back to the wad of cash tucked into Jim’s pants, waiting for the signal.
Jim dragged George Spahn’s mummy out from behind the woodpile where they’d found it—Joe tried to remember when this had been, and whether it’d made an impression on him, but found that he couldn’t consider this in enough depth while also manning the camera without mishap—and the scene commenced. Joe filmed the three actors stabbing the mummy again and again, shrieking, “Off with the corrupt head! Off with the corrupt head!” until, as directed by Jim, one of the women decapitated the mummy with the sharp shovel and held the head up to the camera, smiling and dancing in circles as it dangled from her fist by its long gray ponytail in the dying light of the long afternoon.
“Now, kiss it,” Jim directed. The woman hesitated, looking directly at the camera in a break of continuity that would have to be cut, but, after he repeated the directive, she acquiesced. She held the head to her lips long enough for Joe to zoom in on the contact, then danced, more slowly this time, in another circle, lips to the head’s lips, while the other two danced around her, shrieking, “Crush the head! Crush the head! Crush the head like the head once crushed us!”
After the three of them had crushed the head, Jim yelled “CUT!” and Joe complied. There ensued a moment of fraught silence. The Brothers knew they had their footage. What they didn’t know was what ought to become of the actors, now that they were complicit in its production. As far as Joe could tell, they hadn’t yet considered this conundrum, inevitable as it now seemed.
If we are to sell this footage as actual, the Brothers thought, resorting to the telepathy that still inhered—or that each, when it suited him, chose to believe still inhered—between them, then these actors must never be seen on the streets again. They must be at-large, a tantalizing aura of terror building around their absence.
A Family of murderers too fearsome to be housed in ordinary flesh.
“You’ll live here now,” Jim announced, as if he and Joe had discussed it well ahead of time. “Spahn Ranch will be your new home. Bury that head and go wash up.” He nodded toward an open-air bathhouse that had cold running water and two toilet stalls. “If you try to leave, something will happen.”
The actors looked from Brother to Brother, apparently weighing their options. “Will we ….?” The woman who’d kissed the head began to ask, her lips dusty with old flesh.
“You’ll be fed and watered,” Jim replied. “Room and board. What else do you want? Money? For what?” He waved his arm in the direction of the road that led out of the Ranch, as if to imply that everything out there, where money might still have been spent, was no longer of any concern.
It wasn’t clear how the actors felt about this gesture, but they made no obvious move to contradict it. They turned, dragging the pulped head by its ponytail, and disappeared into the bathhouse.
A few moments later, after the Brothers heard the cold-water showers turn on, they ventured into their command center and set to work editing the footage. As they worked, and found themselves equal to the task, which Joe hadn’t been certain would be the case, they began to construct a history in film for themselves, a loose but vivid story of how they’d been prominent directors in Europe—Joe pictured Vienna, while Jim pictured Madrid—forced to flee the continent as endemic tensions there threatened to boil over. The fact that these tensions had been of the Brothers’ own making was no longer part of the narrative, nor, given that they were now no longer quite the same duo they’d been back then, was it quite true any longer.
Now, here, they were two prominent European directors seeking refuge in Hollywood, trying to make a new name for themselves in the anything-goes Marketplace of American Ideas.
The period they spent devising these new particulars coincided perfectly with the period they spent editing the footage to look like a piece of illicitly captured street video, raw minutes never meant to be seen, so that, by dawn, they emerged with both a coherent account of what they were doing in Hollywood, and the first piece of video to prove it.
After noting that the three actors were asleep beneath a blue plastic tarp in the shade of a ratty willow, the Brothers climbed into their truck and began the drive out to what remained of Beverly Hills.
They cruised through districts of ransacked bungalows and torched municipal buildings, and others in which pool parties could be heard curling around the edges of intact modernist chalets.
Something, they thought, both is and is not afoot here, and we are, atmost, a part of whatever it is, or might in time come to be. They rounded a corner and set off in search of a suitably barricaded mansion at which to peddle their wares.
Once such a mansion had materialized, Jim yanked up the parking brake so their truck wouldn’t roll down the steep hill, and they got out and approached the intercom, Joe carrying the flash drive while Jim pressed the TALK button and put his lips to the microphone.
“Y … yes?” a tentative woman’s voice responded.
“Ma’am, we have something you need to see.”
Joe fingered the drive, scratching its grooved plastic with the nail of his index finger.
“Ma’am,” Jim repeated, when he could tell she hadn’t hung up. “My Brother and business associate is holding up a unit of raw data,” he nudged Joe to hold the drive in front of the camera’s milky gray eye.
When it seemed that the woman had seen it, he continued, “This is a pure unit of clarifying information. Hard evidence of what happened. The reason you …” he looked at the high walls, the wrought iron gate, the intercom they were speaking through. “The reason you are frightened merely to visit the day spa. Surely you sense that something has happened, and yet you wonder what it is. Well, you’re going to need to see this. Send a lackey if you fear coming yourself. My Brother and I will wait for a quarter of an hour. If no lackey emerges in that span of time, we will take our business elsewhere and you will remain in the dark as to what the fate of Los Angeles has been.”
Fourteen minutes later, an armed lackey turned up, unquibbling at Jim’s stated price of $1500. As he watched the lackey peel Benjamins off a thick stack, Joe could tell that they were nowhere near the ceiling of what they could charge. He watched Jim take the bills, fold them into his pocket, doff an imaginary hat, and say, “Tell your keepers that there’s more where that came from. Things are afoot in this city that none would believe, and yet we have proof. Trust no one else.”
The Brothers watched the lackey lock the automatic gate and disappear. Then they cruised down from the Hills and back to the squalor of Hollywood Boulevard, both picturing the woman and her partner or friends or dogs or whoever was shut away in there with her sitting down to watch the beheading, shocked, sickened, and, though none would admit it, secretly thrilled. They imagined word of mouth beginning to spread along a vine-like network of ears and mouths, their humble footage lighting this network up like fresh plasma through a dead artery.
As they cruised along, they passed a ragtag gathering in a parking lot, where two mummers danced to a small band—accordion, harmonica, fiddle. They pulled up, idling in their truck until the band took a break and the crowd began to lose definition, hovering uncertainly between dispersing and devising a new reason to remain together. Into this uncertainty the Brothers strode and, with even more ease than last time, conscripted a new cast, plying them with the promise of room, board, and, if they rose to the occasion, authentic if anonymous fame.
Back at the Ranch, they got right down to it. The other mummies that Jim had discovered along with Spahn’s were too desiccated to make convincing victims, so Jim devised a new scheme, whereby one of their actors—a swarthy man with long black hair—would be hung from the gallows by the other two, a young woman and an older man whose eyes were so crossed it was hard to say where, if anywhere, his attention was centered.
“But how will we fake it?” Joe asked, as he plugged the camera back in and tested the microphones.
Jim suppressed a smirk as he hoisted the man’s feet onto a block of wood beneath the gallows. Panting, he said, “Never you worry. I have it all worked out. You just run the camera when I tell you to.”
A look passed between them here, an unspoken acknowledgement that this was the final moment before their new roles would harden all the way around them. Joe watched the moment arrive and hover before him without coming to a complete stop, like a train slowing down through a station where, nevertheless, no one would be allowed on or off. Then, like that train, the moment departed, and there was no recalling it. He would do what his Brother told him to.
He began to roll the camera while Jim stretched a velvet blazer over the man’s shoulders, fit the noose around his neck, whispered something apparently reassuring in his ear, and stood back, instructing the others on what to shout before kicking away the block that their compatriot was standing on.
Then Jim stepped out of frame, shouted “ACTION!” and watched while the two actors launched into a frenzied speech about the evils of the bourgeoisie, the degeneracy of the Hollywood cabal, and how, “None of you mink-rats will be safe in your mansions, no matter how many locks you put on your doors! We’re coming for all of you and all of your lackeys, and Hollywood Boulevard will run three feet deep with your fermenting goblin blood!”
They went on shouting, occasionally looking off-frame for more direction from Jim. Then they stopped and looked at him again, their eyes confused and imploring, as if hoping for permission to stop the scene here. All sidelong glances will be cut, Joe thought, from behind the camera, feeling his own allegiance waver between the actors, the man in the noose, and his Brother, who was growing increasingly livid just out of frame. Joe watched it play out, uncertain what was going to happen, until he realized that he’d missed the moment when the actors kicked the block away, and now the swarthy man, in his velvet blazer, was swinging, jigging his legs and hunching his shoulders in an effort to raise his bound hands up to his neck.
For a terrifying moment, Joe feared he hadn’t left the camera running, and that they’d have to reshoot the scene, either hanging this same man again, or, if he proved unusable—he didn’t yet allow himself to think the word dead, though he knew this was the word he wasn’t thinking—then they’d have to move on to another actor.
Or to me, he realized, gazing upon his Brother with fear for the first time. For the first time, he could see it happening. He could see Jim turning on him, declaring the reign of the Brothers Squimbop over, and inaugurating a solo venture that Joe would never live to see. He looked down at the camera and exhaled with tremendous relief—too much relief—to see that it was still recording. The take had been captured.
“CUT!” shouted Jim, walking into frame and clapping the two remaining actors on the back as they stood by the feet of the swinging body.
When these actors had been convinced to disperse into the cold-water showers, Jim strode into the house, motioning for Joe to follow.
Joe wanted to keep his eyes on the body until it showed some sign of life, but knew that he couldn’t afford to wait that long. That train, he reminded himself, has left the station. He stood there a moment longer, watching the body swing in the breeze, and tried to remember the actual train he and his Brother had taken from the East, the journey they’d embarked upon and what they’d imagined their imminent exploits might consist of. He tried to see that train traveling still, chugging ever Westward, toward the real Hollywood, not the grim simulacrum they’d ended up in here. That’s all it is, he consoled himself. We just got off too soon, when the journey was still underway, and hence we’re mired in a purgatory we’ll soon be free of. The real Brothers Squimbop are still on that train, speeding ever Westward, and the people my Brother and I have temporarily become are merely stand-ins, a hapless opening act before the real Brothers take the stage.
Thus consoled, he entered the house. By the time he’d made it to the editing bay, Jim had already loaded the footage into a timeline and begun to add static and distortion, once again creating the illusion that this was execution footage captured on the fly, more gruesome evidence of the uprising that, if their scheme panned out, would in due time become the accepted history of what had happened to Los Angeles. The chickens that had finally come home to roost.
Determined to take a more active role in the process, Joe cleared his throat after realizing the Jim had yet to acknowledge his presence. When nothing happened, he cleared his throat again. “Get some sleep,” Jim barked, without looking up. On the monitors, the body jigged on its rope, up and down and back and forth, as Jim scrubbed through the timeline, trying to get the rhythm right. Adding chaos, Joe thought, where none had been.
“Get some sleep,” Jim repeated, louder this time. “Go have a nightmare.”
By the time Joe had settled into the cramped, rickety bed he’d apparently been sleeping in since they’d arrived at Spahn Ranch, he couldn’t be sure whether his Brother really had said this last part. Either way, he could tell that a nightmare was about to begin.
He found himself roaming the premises, exploring them in full for the first time, already unsettled as he realized how long he’d been living here without quite knowing where he was, or, it seemed, making any effort to find out. Now he roamed from room to room in the main house, the production hub, opening closets stuffed with hair, fur, blue tarps, and severed heads, or even entire severed torsos. He never got close enough to tell if they were props or actual body parts, though the rooms took on such a butcher-shop reek that he was forced outside, into the moonlit alley linking the sheds, shacks, and other outbuildings that made up the rest of the Ranch.
He followed this alley toward the moon, dragging his feet sideways through dusty gravel, flanked by tractors, combines, and cacti, his back to the gallows where, though he tried not to hear it, the body was still swinging, tapping against the metal frame.
As he roamed from shack to shack, looking for the actors they’d hired—in the nightmare, if he was still in it, he could remember that these people were meant to be nearby, eating and drinking according to Jim’s promise—he found nothing but carnage, old bodies drained and stacked like car parts beneath a series of blue tarps.
He took in as much as he could, auditing the damage done, aware that gas or bile was simmering in his belly and that, before long, he’d have to sit down. The scope of it, the enormity of what’d happened here, was such that he could tell things would never be the same.
But, he found himself thinking, as he sat down in the lunar dust beneath the feet of the hanging body, the same as what? How did things used to be? Did we used to be different?
He looked up at the noose and the neck it encircled, and the gridlock in what he saw translated into the gridlock he felt, each rendering the other redundant. Just as he couldn’t picture that body coming free of its noose, he couldn’t picture his mind coming free of the present. He knew he missed something—its absence was acute—and yet he could not supply any scene, story, or object to begin to say what it was.
Nevertheless, he was determined to try.
He closed his eyes and saw his Brother and himself, Jim and Joe, the Brothers Squimbop, hands on the railing as the ship they’d taken back from Europe made landfall. They were, he remembered, relieved to be back. At large in America again. He smiled, glad to have recovered this scene with certainty. Then he tried to extend it, to see the two of them disembarking and beginning to consider their next move, whether to try again to take Boston and New York by storm—to say nothing of Philly, a notion that made him laugh for reasons he couldn’t untangle—as they had in the great industrial thrum of the nineteenth century, or to head inland, back to Chicago, where they’d once erected a gambling and liquor racket to rival Al Capone’s, or maybe all the way back to Hollywood, where they’d once … the longer he went on trying to picture it, the further he receded, until he felt, painfully, like a non-entity in an empty theater, watching reruns of The Brothers Squimbop on a dismal Sunday afternoon before returning to a life whose particulars he couldn’t begin to fathom.
A sharp pain in his right clavicle shocked him awake, into a bloody sunrise filtering past the gallows and into his mouth. He could feel the sun’s heat on his molars as Jim pulled him upright and said, “Time to get going.”
Joe allowed his Brother to deposit him in the passenger’s seat of the truck, then watched as they cruised up the path, away from the Ranch, and back toward what remained of Los Angeles, or the simulacrum they’d ended up in. They rolled through suburban sprawl, half the houses boarded up, probably full of squatters, while the other half appeared unscathed, their residents watering their lawns or collecting their mail off the front steps, squinting into the rising sun.
As they wound their way back into the Hills, Joe ruminated on the central dilemma of his nightmare, which, so far as he could remember, always made its presence known at this point in their escapades. The question of which came first, the … Joe felt the corners of his mouth rise in a clown grin, or the ….
Looking out at the rapidly fancifying streets as they approached their destination, he tried to remember what the two options were, the two harrowingly divergent paths that everything still to come might take.
“What’re you laughing at?” Jim scowled, as he retrieved the flash drive from the glove compartment.
The tautology of my most recent thought, Joe wanted to reply. The futility of trying to parse the situation. My inability, for whatfeels like the first time in our shared life, to guess at your intentions.
He said none of this, only frowned and hoped that his Brother would ask what the matter was. But Jim was already at the gate, ringing the bell and preparing to enact the familiar sales pitch once again.
Joe knew he wasn’t needed at this point, though he still hurried over to his Brother’s side, afraid of being left alone in the truck. What if it rolls down the hill with me inside? He wondered, trying to convince himself that this was his only worry.
By the time he’d made it to the gate, a lackey was already there, trembling with anticipation. “This footage is growing more precious by the day,” Jim said. “The tide is rising. The rate of execution is increasing. Names, addresses, all are circulating. If your client wishes to be apprised of the direct threat, then she will have to pay what it costs.”
The lackey started skimming hundreds off the top of a pile, looking up imploringly after every three or four. “Keep going,” Jim said, more than once, as the lackey’s face started to fall, then kept falling, until the pile was depleted.
As they wound down from the Hills and back toward Hollywood Boulevard, the stack of cash flapping in the wind on Jim’s lap, he smiled and said, “Brother, we’re a hit! They’re buying it faster than it can be made. There is, as best I can tell, no news any longer. No media, no Internet, no phone networks, no word as to what, if anything, has happened here, or is about to happen. Only us, Brother. Our Word. Time to celebrate!”
He clapped Joe on the shoulders, just as he used to when times were good. Alongside his relief, Joe chided himself for overreacting, for having imagined a rift between the Brothers Squimbop, or between himself and the Brothers Squimbop, where, it seemed now, none had existed. He exhaled and smiled, despite his lingering exhaustion from the long night. “Musso and Frank?” he proposed.
Jim grinned, nodded, and yanked the truck to a sudden halt beside the ancient restaurant, grabbing the wad of cash, tearing it in half, and stuffing it into his two pockets.
Inside, they both ordered Porterhouse steaks, mashed potatoes with parsley and clarified butter, and double pours of top-shelf scotch. As they sipped and relaxed, they overheard a waiter and a busboy whispering by the kitchen doors. “Saw them in here yesterday,” the busboy said.
“And you’re sure they … drank her blood and baked the skin in an oven?”
The busboy nodded. “I know people who’ve seen it happen. I can’t say who they are, but trust me. It’s happening all over town, actors, producers, directors, financiers from overseas … gathering up babies, don’t ask me where they get them, there’s plenty of orphans around, and breaking the necks, tearing open the throats, drinking the blood. Baking the skin into leather masks. Leather chaps, leather thongs. It’s the only way they can stay young. Strong, healthy-looking. Vampires, the whole fucking lot of them. Grinding the poor into pink slime.”
Joe closed his eyes, in order to listen more intently. If only there were some footage to prove it, he found himself thinking. His heart began to race as he prepared to announce his discovery of a brand-new market. Jim! He was preparing to say. We’ve only tapped half the market so far: with minimal adjustment we can also sell footage to the—
He opened his eyes to find his Brother gone, two steaming Porterhouse steaks on the table, and the waiter who’d just been talking standing quizzically off to the side. Joe looked for the stack of cash, knowing he wouldn’t find it, then said, “I’m, ah, let me just run outside for a sec and ….”
He dashed out of the restaurant and into the truck just as Jim was pulling back onto Hollywood Boulevard. He could tell by the fiendish look in Jim’s eyes that his own stroke of genius was already redundant. Of course, he thought, trying to console himself, whatever I think of he thinks too. That’s how it works with the Brothers Squimbop!
He tried to take comfort in remembering this, but as he watched his Brother drive, twenty miles over the speed limit, he had to admit that he couldn’t tell what Jim was thinking. Whatever telepathy remained did not seem durable. He could only sit there in silence while Jim careened around curves and over sidewalks, muttering, “Baby … baby … gotta find a baby.”
This went on until Jim yanked the truck to a halt outside one of the impromptu markets where they’d stopped before, and said, simply, “Wait here.”
Joe waited, though he knew he should follow so as to find out, in what he could tell would soon be the crucial moment, whether it would be his fate to encourage or oppose his Brother’s darkest impulses. But his own impulses held him faster than any seatbelt could. He unclicked his seatbelt, as if to prove the point, and sat there encumbered only by his own nature while Jim negotiated with the gypsies and streetwalkers and shaman-headed shamans, going from one group to the next with his wad of cash, until he returned with a fresh contingent in tow.
“Help them in,” Jim barked, as he settled back behind the driver’s seat, tucking the remaining cash into his shirt-front pocket. Finding that he could move once again—as if his Brother’s command had reactivated him—Joe got to his feet and opened the back doors of the truck’s main cabin, kicking aside camera equipment, taco wrappers, and beer cans, so that the new contingent—two shaman-headed shamans, a young woman, a young man, and, much as Joe hated to see it, an infant in a bassinet—could squeeze in.
As soon as they were settled, however haphazardly, Jim jerked the truck into motion, forcing Joe to careen headfirst into the passenger’s seat, a pratfall that made the spooked newcomers giggle. Joe giggled too as he righted himself amid a flurry of memories of the Brothers Squimbop as an old-school slapstick duo. Sitting again right-wise in his seat while they sped into the Canyons, he leaned back, closed his eyes, and watched the Brothers dance across a series of stages in flickering, gauzy black and white. He saw them tumble and flip and trip each other, he saw them play-fight and dance with canes and top hats, he saw them fall down a wobbly ladder they took turns holding aloft, swapping roles faster and faster until the audience rose to their feet in hysterics, clapping, stomping their feet, and cheering along.
Joe pressed his face against the glass of his window and let these memories play across it, resisting any effort to discern whether what he could see was in the first or third person, whether he had once been the Brothers Squimbop, at least one half of the iconic duo, or merely gone to see them, in a cheap seat beside his brother, in some lost lifetime, long ago.
“Okay, we’re here,” Jim barked, jerking the parking brake yet again as the truck settled into position in front of the house on Cielo Drive. As Joe surfaced from the theater where he’d been watching the Brothers Squimbop perform their greatest hits, a little of what his Brother had been thinking stuck to the inside of his head. The last of the old telepathy, he thought, watching Jim usher the new actors inside.
“There’s a camera and mic under the tarp in back of the truck,” Jim said, as if he’d known since this morning that they’d be making an extra stop today. “Bring it inside.”
Then he turned, herding the shaman-headed shamans and the young family past the pool and in through the frosted glass front doors. Joe had no choice but to gather the equipment and follow suit.
Inside, Jim had already ransacked the closets and found a sheer, strapless dress for the woman, and a blue blazer with matching trousers for the man. He stuffed these into their hands and said, “Get changed. We’re on the clock here.”
The shaman-headed shamans looked at him, but Jim shook his head, saying, “You folks are already in costume.”
Then he looked to me and said, “Set up the equipment. I need us to get in and get out here. We’re in hostile territory.”
I complied, my hands trembling so badly I bent the teeth on the extension cord as I jammed it into the wall, and tried to wiggle them back apart without Jim seeing my error. When I’d succeeded, just barely, I stood, blood rushing to my head, to see the couple, all cleaned up, smelling of whatever perfume and cologne they’d found in the bathroom of whoever had lived here during what I could only think of as normal times, which had perhaps only recently come to an end, despite my previous sense that they’d ended long ago.
“Great,” Jim said. “Now, in this scene, you’re going to sacrifice the baby. The shamans will help, don’t worry. They’ll say the prayers and then, on my command, you’ll cut the baby’s throat with this,” he handed over a hooked dagger with a light wooden handle, which he must’ve been carrying all day.
I closed my eyes and tried to return to the theater, to feel the warm, sweaty air, and smell the popcorn and malty beer on the floor, but all I succeeded in doing was dropping the cable, forcing Jim to turn toward me and shout, “Wake up, goddammit!”
The couple in their fancy get-ups stared at him, then at their baby, then at the shaman-headed shamans, slavering off to one edge of the room, the pool flickering through the floor-to-ceiling windows behind them.
“You will do this because it is the only means of summoning the gnostic Satan still at hand. You will do it because only the gnostic Satan can provide the immortality you have spent your youth assuming would fall into place for you and only now, on the brink of middle age, are you beginning to suspect it will not. Not without intervention.”
Jim handed the woman the dagger.
“Lastly, you will do it because the shaman-headed shamans will take and shrink your heads and wear them around their necks if you do not, and your infant will grow up bewildered and abandoned, left to the coyotes that roam the shantytowns of Van Nuys. Take a look at these shamans’ necks, at the heads suspended from them. Where do you imagine those heads came from?”
He paused long enough for everyone present to glance at the heads around the shamans’ necks, which seemed to blush and clench their teeth at the unexpected attention. The baby moaned and gurgled, growing bored.
Then Jim said, “When I call ACTION, you will cut that baby’s throat, sup from the wound, then sink to your knees and moan gibberish until I call CUT!”
When he called “ACTION,” I tried again to lapse out of the mansion on Cielo Drive and back to the theater where the Brothers Squimbop mugged in perpetuity. Although I failed again, I managed this time to transport myself to a dim, sweltering alley with a number of other people, huddled around a monitor on a plastic chair as we leaned in to watch a celebrity couple cut a baby’s throat and drink from the wound while two freakish enchanters whispered curses in the background. I felt what it would be to watch this footage, and to believe it was real, and, grounded in that belief, to prepare to rise up, to join in with a group of fellow street-dwellers determined to throw off our lunatic masters once and for all, and thereby, after too long in the dark, reclaim our rightful place among the good and the decent and the honest, leaving the alleys to which we’d been consigned and returning to the mansions that were rightfully ours.
I felt deep relief as this footage proved my suspicions true, and yet I felt the opposite as well, as I pressed my eye against the viewfinder and saw that I was not in that alley, watching this footage on a monitor, not yet, but rather still in the house on Cielo Drive, filming it as it played out mere feet from where I stood.
I tried to picture myself driving away, tearing down the hill and out of the Canyons and back through the city toward the coast, the awful scene before my eyes melting into the silver lake of all the cinema I’d ever absorbed, all of Hollywood in its epic rise, fall, and failed resurgence at the direction of the Brothers Squimbop, two ragtag directors from Madrid, or Vienna, seeking their fortunes in the New World.
The couple, totally lost in their roles now, hypnotized by my Brother just as I had been all my life, covered their faces in the baby’s blood and sawed through its spine with the slippery dagger, until it had been reduced to so many pieces that I could no longer tell whether it had been one baby or two, twins perhaps. I pressed my eye deeper into the viewfinder, almost popping it against the slick glass, and watched as the woman became the black-cloaked witch.
Her face caked with raw flesh, she turned from the scene to look directly through the lens and into my eye. When she could tell that the shot was focused on her alone, she began to mouth words that I struggled to make out. “Leave now,” I think she said. “Before this gets much worse. The next phase is only beginning. If you do not have the stomach for it, leave this instant. I release you.”
When she turned from me and resumed her role, I peeled my eye from the viewfinder, weeping, and left the camera where it stood, unconcerned with being followed, though I knew my Brother would kill me if he saw me leave, just as I would’ve killed him, had our roles been reversed. I walked out the door, my shirt and pants spattered with blood and flesh, and strolled to the truck, the air thick around my legs, like the water in the swimming pool glimmering off to my right. I suspected I’d be able to fly if I made a concerted effort. Instead, I put my hands in my pockets, surprised to find the keys there.
I climbed behind the wheel, disengaged the parking brake, and began to roll down the hill, out of the Canyons, seeking the same lowlands I’d imagined a moment ago. I drove and began to wait for all that I’d seen to fade into footage as I got up to speed on the highway, passing derelict theaters and billboards advertising spectacles so long forgotten it was as if they’d never occurred. I looked down the offramps and saw, repeated again and again, a monitor set up in an alley with a circle of dark figures pressing in around it, watching—though I couldn’t see this from the truck—the scene we’d just shot, the murder echoing in perpetuity, becoming legend.
I drove through the night, beyond the legend’s reach, seeking the ocean, the actual Pacific at last, beyond all the Salton Seas, beyond the vale of simulacra where our journey ended and my journey began. I drove and scratched at the flesh on my belly and up into my armpit, and I pictured how I would immerse myself in the cold, black water beyond the continent’s edge, washing away whatever of my Brother remained from the place where we’d been slashed apart, never again to share the stage in the theater where, even now, I knew that the Brothers Squimbop were tap-dancing into eternity, shrugging off the names Jim and Joe so as to merge, more seamlessly this time, with the spirits of strangers.
THE BROTHERS SQUIMBOP WILL RETURN IN “SQUIMBOP FEVER”
David Leo Rice is a writer and animator from Northampton, MA, currently living in NYC. His novels include A Room in Dodge City, A Room in Dodge City: Vol. 2, and ANGEL HOUSE. His debut story collection, Drifter, is coming in June 2021. He’s online at: raviddice.com.