/ Language: English / Genre:sf_horror

Quest for Sex, Truth & Reality

Edward Lee

"The three stories in this chapbook are among my favorites of my stuff," Lee says. The stories are the intellectualized b-movie-like "The Seeker" and the Lieberesque "The Goddess of the New Dark Age," plus the potent existential porn piece, "Sex, Truth, & Reality" aka "Pay Me." The latter has never been reprinted, and was originally accepted in the early '80s by HUSTLER magazine, even to the point that Lee's manuscript was copy-edited and sent to the typesetter. "Jut my luck," Lee recalls. "Right before they were going to pay me something like 800 bucks," the fiction editor left the company and the story was rejected by his successor, said HUSTLER was no place for philosophical fiction. It's the only time I'm ever gotten a manuscript returned with copy-edit marks."

Quest for Sex, Truth & Reality by Edward Lee

This is for S—.

I am forever

and ineffably

yours.

Goddes of the New Dark Age

(For Chara)

“What is real?” he wondered aloud.

Then Smith heard the words: Revere me. Make me real. Not his words, but a muffled hiss, like someone whispering on the other side of the wall…

The wall was nightmare: tremoring flesh, skin sweating in turmoil, pain, despair. So I’m dreaming standing up now, Smith thought. Wide awake, in daylight.

Flecks of mica glittered up from the sidewalk. The sun raged. Old man, he thought. City cops cruised by, eyeing him, squab faces dark behind tinted glass. “Frog, Ice, Cokesmoke?” a hand-pocketed black man asked him. By a newspaper stand, where headlines blared MAN SETS WIFE & CHILDREN ON FIRE, a raddled prostitute twitched, scratching at needlemarks inside of her thigh. In the mouth of a brick, urine-soaked alley, a woman in rags vomited up blood as rats the size of small puppies boldly approached the emesis, to eat.

Smith hated the sun. It seemed bright with life, which made him feel even older, more depleted. Where am I going? The question didn’t mean now, today, this minute. Where am I going forever? he wondered. Where have I been?

The footsteps padded behind him; they had for weeks. Smith had long since stopped looking back. It sounded like someone walking barefoot — a woman, he surmised, a robust, beautiful woman. He also detected the lovely scent — perfume, and some kind of inexplicable heat at his groin and his heart. Whenever he turned, though, at the sound and the lush fragrance, nothing was there. Just a shadow sometimes, just a fleck, like the mica in the cement.

Perhaps it was a ghost, whatever ghosts were. Ghost, or just hallucination. His physical body felt like vermiculated meat. Too many artificial sweeteners, cigarettes, alcohol, saturated fats. A body could only take so much vandalism. But Smith didn’t care. Why should he, now? Or ever, for that matter?

Or maybe ghosts were real. Physical residuum, he speculated. Interplanar leakage. Was there really a netherworld, like an anxious tongue licking across pressed lips, desperate for entry? He’d read somewhere that horror left a stain, a laceration through which the tenants of the void could ooze into the world. But if this were true, mankind would surely be smothered by such ooze.

So what was this “ghost?” A spirit? An angel?

Was the ghost real?

Sometimes he could actually see it, via the presage: the longing perfume scent, the warmth. Generally only at night. Of course, he thought. Night. Dr. Greene had told him to expect as much. But ghosts? “Be prepared for some contraindications from the chemotherapy,” came the words like a clipped dissertation. “Olfactory and aural hallucinosis. Exodikinesis, immoderate scotopic debris, synaptic maladaption and toxicity intolerance. It’s normal.” Normal, Smith reflected. Dying’s normal too. Three treatments left him racked for hours, dry heaving bile. His hair had fallen out. “To hell with this,” he’d told Greene, on the fourth visit. “Let me die.” Cancer seemed an appropriate way for a writer to die. It seemed nearly allegorical. The festering beneath the miraculous veneer of human flesh.

No, the ghost wasn’t a side effect. It must be real. He thought he could see it, the shadow within the shadow, peering back. A shadow in want of flesh.

Was it Smith’s flesh it wanted? Why should it want me? My flesh’s dying. I am essentially a walking corpse. He could smell the perfume, even over the city’s mephitis of carbon-monoxide, stale sweat, and garbage. “You smell beautiful,” he whispered. “Whoever you are.” He walked on, shriveling against the glare of the sun, but then stopped to look back once more.

“Are you real?” he asked.

***

“What is real?” Smith lit a cigarette; it scarcely mattered now. But the question kept occurring to him, like an itching rash. Why should it be so important?

His biopsy analysis — now that was real. The single sheet seemed too thin for such a grievous message. It drooped in his hand like something already dead:

CYTOLOGY REPORT

Name: Smith, L.

Age: 61, W/M

Clinical Consultation: Large Cell Coaxial Mass

Specify: Right Lung Mass Aspirate

_ Negative

_ Atypical

x Positive

Microscopic Description: Right Lung Aspirate showing numerous malignant large cells, some of which showing large vesicular irregular nuclei, consistent with non-keratinizing carcinoma, probably large-cell differentiated type of adenocarcinoma.

Smith was a realist. No sense in crying over a spilt life. He felt he had a mission now, but wasn’t sure what it could be. He couldn’t stop thinking of the ghost.

“Are you real?”

Behind his typewriter, behind his desk, a shadow, or a smudge, seemed to nod. “Who are you!” Smith suddenly yelled. “What do you want from me?”

Your reckoning, something seemed to hiss. It wasn’t even really a sound, more akin to insect appendages abrading. The soft bare footfalls followed him to the bathroom. A ghost is coming into the toilet with me, he thought. It was almost funny. He smiled at the lovely perfume-scent, then winced, urinating blood. Of course: by now the disease had bloomed. Dr. Greene had warned him, hadn’t he? “Renal malfunction. What happens, Mr. Smith, is that the raging malignant cells become insinuated into the nephrons and the cortical kidney tissue, sceloriticizing the calyx cavities.” Charming, Smith thought now. The pain was extraordinary, like bright light.

Smith had been a writer for over forty years. Had been, he emphasized, pulling up his zipper. He flushed the toilet, and thought of his career. Had he been a good writer? He’d thought so, until Greene had told him the truth. The good doctor had at least been respectful enough of Smith’s profession not to mince words. “You’re dying,” he’d said. “You’ll be gone in oh, say, six weeks.”

Gone, Smith considered. He was still in the bathroom. What did gone mean? Did it mean no longer real? The question continued to nag at him, worse than the cancer. “What is real?” he asked.

Find out, the hiss replied. You haven’t much time.

As a writer, he’d spent his life trying to create realities out of assessments of imagination. The truth of any story can only exist in its bare words, he’d heard someone say in a bar when he was eighteen. He’d been a writer ever since, pursuing that. But now, now that he was dying, he knew that he’d failed utterly. Was that why the ghost had come to him, evoked by the knowledge of his failure? What was the hiss trying to tell him?

“I see you,” he said. For a moment he had, behind him in the mirror. Beautiful, he thought. A beautiful, beautiful woman, an amalgam composed of inverted bits of wallpaper, a prolapsation. It smiled weakly, then vanished. Only its pleasant smell remained.

The television poured forth atrocities. Or were they realities? “Up next,” promised the newswoman, with a visage of wood, “Texas State Supreme Court grants local journalists the right to televise executions.” Outside the courthouse, a crowd in floodlit darkness cheered. Then, a commercial, a slim brunette in a white swimsuit: “If you’re counting calories, here’s something you should know…” Smith changed the channel. “…where officials estimate that one thousand children are starving to death daily, while government troops remain free to confiscate relief rations from the United Red Cross, selling to the black market what they don’t eat themselves.”

And next: “—confessed today that he knowingly tainted the entire hospital’s transfusion supply with AIDS infected bl—”

“—amid allegations of abducting over one hundred children for what FBI officials have called ‘the underground snuff-film circuit—’”

“—strangled slowly with a lampcord while her common-law husband and his friends took turns—”

Smith turned off the set, feeling as confused as he felt disgusted. The newspaper offered more of the same. CRACK MOM TURNS KIDS TO PROSTITUTES read one local headline. The Post seemed less blunt: EARTHQUAKE DEATH TOLL EXPECTED TO REACH 120,000. Here was a story. A Tucson, Arizona, woman locked her three children in her attic while she went shopping with a friend. All three children died as the temperature in the attic exceeded 150 degrees. Stray bullets in a drug-related shootout killed three six-year-olds in front of a Detroit apartment project. The body of a thirteen-year old was found by hunters in Davidsonville, Maryland; the police reported that she’d been raped en mass and tortured with power tools. A suitcase was discovered in a dumpster behind a Washington D.C. convenience store, containing a dead newborn baby complete with umbilical cord and placenta.

Smith’s contemplations wavered. What could be more real than all of this? But there must be something. The ghost was walking around, he could feel it. It seemed to be perusing the bookshelf full of his work. Then it hissed at him, and disappeared.

***

The sun felt like a blade against his face as his guest dragged him back out onto the street. He was shriveling. It occurred to him, as he ascended the stone steps, that this was the first time he’d entered a church since he’d become a writer.

An old priest limped across the chancel, his bald head like a shiny ball of dough. He began to change the frontals on the altar.

“Excuse me, sir…er, Father,” Smith interrupted.

“Yes?”

“What is real?”

The priest straightened, a frocked silhouette before stained glass. He did not question, or even pause upon, the obscurity of Smith’s query. He answered at once: “God, Christ, the kingdom of Heaven.”

“But how do you know?”

The priest’s bland face smiled. He held up his Bible.

Smith thanked him and walked out. He felt abandoned, not as much by God as by himself. Conviction wasn’t proof. Belief didn’t validate a reality. Next, he took a Yellow cab to the University, where the static sunlight made everything look brittle and fake. Inside, cool darkness and tile shine led him down the hall. PHILOSOPHY DEPARTMENT. Smith stepped unannounced into the first office. A man — who looked as old — glanced up from a cluttered industrial gray metal desk. “May I…help you?”

Smith considered how he must look — a haggard, emaciated vagabond. “Forgive my appearance… “but it’s hard to look good when you’re dying from a large-cell metastatic mass. He had no time for intricate explanations nor cordialities. “I have a question that only a philosopher can answer. The question is this: What is real?”

The professor lit a pipe with a face engraved in relief on the bowl. His eyes looked tiny below the great, bushy gray brows. “That’s quite a universal question, wouldn’t you say? You want my opinion?”

In the window, the campus stood empty in sunlight. “Yes,” Smith said after a pause. That’s when he noticed the ghost. It was standing just outside, looking at him, an ethereal chaperon. “Yes, yes,” he said. “I’d appreciate your opinion very much.”

“Ah, what is real?” Pipe smoke smeared the professor’s aged face. “Consider, first, the initial tenets of conclusionary nihilism. Truth is reality, and there is no objective basis for truth. Take mathematics for example, which exists only because space and time are forms of intuition; all material qualities are only the outward appearances arising from monadistic nexi. See? What is real can only be found in the immaterial mind; hence, the solipsistic doctrine. The human self is the only thing, in other words, that can be known and therefore verified. Quite a contradiction, since life is clearly a material, or a physio-chemical, interaction. Being and reality are not found in objects of knowledge but in something accessible only to the free and total self. Man’s destiny is a struggle for power, or, in your case, for answers. What I mean is, the real can never be made manifest in our finite minds but in the genetic empiricism beyond the whole. To put it more plainly, and I think it should be obvious now, reality is a consistence of a judgement pursuant to other judgements, fitting in ultimately to a single absolute system.”

Smith resisted rolling his eyes. He thanked the professor for his time, and left, thinking, What a crock of shit.

***

So it wasn’t truth, and it wasn’t spirit. Smith lit a cigarette, pondering the smoke. Love? he wondered. Was love real? Did love make something real? He didn’t know. He’d been too busy writing to ever find out.

These were simply subjectivities trying to be concrete, which was impossible. Beauty, then? He leaned back. Hmmm. Did beauty — a true subjectivity — make something real? Suddenly Smith felt buoyant with excitement. His kidneys throbbed, and his lung felt like a bleeding clot. Yet the surmise gave him energy.

Beauty.

Wasn’t beauty what all writers were supposed to pursue?

He heard a sigh, or no — a hiss. Did it denote relief, or disappointment? “It’s beauty, isn’t it?” Smith asked aloud to the shadow which now lingered at the closet. Was it inspecting his clothes? The shape sharpened as dusk bled into the room, creeping. What had it said, just days ago, on the street? Revere me. Smith knew at once that he must appease the ghost, with aphorism, with comprehension. “I’ll show you,” he said.

He opened the Yellow Pages, to the E’s. ESCORTS UNLIMITED, BEAUTIFUL GIRLS, CONFIDENTIAL, 24 HOURS, VISA, MASTERCARD.

The sigh replayed in his head, and the wondrous scent rose as Smith reached for the phone, to call beauty.

***

“Do you believe in ghosts?”

The girl’s smile twitched. “Uh, well…”

“Never mind,” Smith said. “I was allegorizing, I suppose. I used to be a novelist.” He sat behind his desk, behind his typewriter, which was turned off. He would never turn it on again, and this left him dryly depressed. He had nothing to write. But it seemed a suitable place from which to observe: the lap of his insufficiency. I’ve written over a hundred books, he felt inclined to brag. But so what? Why say that? His books had not been real.

“What, uh, what would you like me to do?” the girl inquired.

Smith squinted. “I want to see you. I realize how obscure that must sound, but I’m on a quest of sorts, and I’m afraid I’ve become subject to a considerable time constraint. I’ve been made aware of a possibility, though, quite recently, that reality only arrives through an acknowledgment, or a reckoning, of human beauty. Not an objective acknowledgment, but a temporal one. I’m looking for something, the underside perhaps, of what makes something real in our minds and, more critically, our hearts. Use a sentence in fiction as an example. Objectively, the sentence is nothing more than configurations of ink on a piece of paper. But the mechanism of the words, and the function of the mechanism, in conjunction with the manner by which we define the sequence of the words, affects a transposition of imagery. It makes the sentence real in the process. The process—do you understand?” Smith doubted that she did. “The words suddenly become real, in some other, ineffable way.” He must sound worse than the professor. You’re just a piece of physical meat, he could have put it more simply. But I need to see what you are beyond that, not as just a body but as an image transposed through the body. Would it offend her? Would she understand?

At least the ghost seemed to understand. Smith caught frequent glimpses now, since the call-girl had arrived. He felt certain that the more effectively he strove to conquer the question — What is real? — the more real the ghost would become.

“I smell perfume,” the girl remarked.

“Yes,” Smith said but did not elaborate. “In other words, I merely need to see you, all of you.”

“Ah,” the girl said, stretching the word. “Now I get it. Now I know what you mean.” She smiled, a manufactured wickedness, and took off the short fuchsia dress. “You just want to watch. That’s okay. It’s your dime.”

Smith’s “dime,” in this case, had been a $150 escort fee on his charge card, plus “tip.” He’d given her several hundred in cash, all he had left in the apartment. What did he need money for? He’d never really needed it in life. What good would it do him now?

“Show me your beauty,” Smith said.

Off, then, came the garters, the stockings and frilly lace bra, all the same vibrant, bright fuchsia. She wore no panties. What stood before Smith now was her raw, physical reality. But—Not enough, he thought, squinting past his desk. He needed to see her beauty, and at first she did indeed strike him as beautiful…

Smith tipped up the desklamp. “Come closer. Please. Closer to the desk.”

She sauntered forward like a chic model on a runway, and assumed quick poses, turning before the light. Flesh flashed in cold glare. Glance by glance, the beauty collapsed.

The silken white-blond hair and bangs clashed with the waxed, black pubic patch. The rhinoplastied nose seemed too perfect on the elegant face. Smith’s eyes calculated up the supple physique, and snagged. Minute cannula marks pocked along her trim hips and waist, from liposuction, and when she raised her arms, the erect orbs of her breasts easily displayed the hairline implant scars.

She blinked at him, her smile freezing. Even the crystal-blue eyes were a lie, designer contacts.

“Thank you,” Smith said. “You may go now.”

Her nude, pretty shoulders shrugged. “It’s your dime.” Then she quickly put her clothes back on and left.

The ghost was laughing.

***

On the night he was to die, Smith awakened as if rising from a lime pit. The darkness swarmed. His eyes felt plucked open by fish hooks.

You should have more faith, the hiss whispered.

“Yes,” he muttered. He walked to his desk, wizened as a dried corpse in the moonlight. Faith? he wondered. Smith didn’t believe in God. Perhaps he should have. Nevertheless, he doubted that the ghost meant religious faith.

Faith in me. Faith in what is real.

He’d failed again, he’d misconstrued everything. He’d never know reality now, only the reality of death, of being embalmed and buried, of reverting to slime in a box. But what was he — a writer — really dying of? Cancer, or the failure to recognize what was real? Prevarications were killing him, not disease.

Deserts, he thought. Wastelands. All the lies of history.

Only two realities mattered now. His dying flesh, and the ghost.

He saw it more clearly now than ever, which made sense. It faced the window, naked in its oblivion, a razorline shape of inverted oddments of darkness and light. “You’re real, aren’t you?” Smith stated more than asked.

Only you can make me real, the hiss replied.

Smith felt adrift on the scent of her — or its — perfume. But how could he make it real? Did it mean that it was only half-real now? Did it mean there was something about Smith that could unloose the ghost’s full reality?

“Assimilation?” Smith lit a cigarette, his last. “No,” he felt. “Transposition.” Perhaps he’d been correct all-along, back when he’d been talking to the blonde call-girl. Correct, but on the wrong tangent. It was his trade that had summoned the ghost — he was a writer, a creator, or, more accurately, a re-creator. Writers re-created their own conceptions of images of reality and blended them with abstraction, transposing the images, and making both the conception and the abstraction, in a sense—

Real, he thought.

He’d only been partly right. Beauty reflected only a semantic; it was something created, not transposed. Smith stared at the shifting figure, and its ebon glint. It seemed to gaze back at him, over the shadow-boned shoulder…

“Too late, though, hmm?” Of course. His life was over. His face felt sucked in. The old heart began to skip within the sunken cage of his chest. But at least he would die pondering this; at least he would die trying.

Ghosts. Not Dickensian specters flailing chains and moaning amid graveyards. Not transparent apparitions and sheet-shapes. Ghosts would be entities of human backwash, of unfulfillment, of failure. Ghosts would be slivers of the real world. And what was the world, then? A realm, not a sphere of rock, a domain of…transposition — a mutable domain, one that squirmed with each new generation, and each new age.

The ghost turned. Its black-chasm eyes widened.

“Now I’ve got you going, eh?” Smith felt proud. “The old dying stick in the mud isn’t as dumb as you thought.”

Make me real, came the hushed reverberation.

“I don’t know how,” Smith testily replied.

But you do.

Was it weeping? It seemed to be, perhaps as Smith, secretly, had wept over his entire life. Behind him on the wall hung a de Kooning print, A Study of Woman Number One, which he regarded as the greatest painting of the 20th Century. The painting reminded him of a girl from his dim past, but he’d never told her his real feelings. Hence, it felt too fitting to be overlooked by an image of this most monumental failure. Smith breathed shallowly now in that total loss. At least pain reminded him he was still momentarily alive.

Next, he turned on the radio. Vivaldi seemed nice to die to, or a light nocturne by Field. Besides, Smith wanted beautiful music as he confronted the ghost. He knew something now: the ghost — this shadow-person — was his confessor.

He rose, joints clicking, as he crossed the nighted room, atrophied, shrivel-penised, and as pale as death already. He could feel the cancer percolating, and it was a surprisingly neutral sensation. Transposition, he considered. Each new generation, each new age. Yes, the world was a realm of emotion, of which this queer thing in his room had surely been born. Out of the dark, the radio squawked another day’s unholy news. A bomb had exploded on an airliner, scattering hundreds of bodies across the outskirts of Los Angeles. A Florida man who had raped a 15-year-old girl and severed her arms at the elbows was paroled, after eight years, for good behavior. A coterie of scientists convened in Washington, citing the benefits of using brain tissue from aborted fetuses for genetic research. Terrorists had thrown seven satchel charges into an Israeli maternity ward…

Look. The ghost indicated the window. Smith peered out. At first, what he saw seemed beautiful: a warm endless night chipped by stars, the high, resplendent moon, and man’s crisp, perfectly symmetrical monuments. The scape of buildings looked like an intricate carved mesa of flawless black, still with tiny lights.

“It’s beautiful,” Smith muttered.

But then its reality rose before the vision. Flashing red and blue lights of terror. Sirens. Gunshots. Distant screams. A cool breeze carried in the chaotic stench.

Smith blinked.

Revere me. Make me real.

The ghost shifted. Now he understood.

It’s time now, isn’t it? Time for a new realm? Your realm is done, isn’t it?

It didn’t mean his life — of course not. It meant the age.

The night lolled. The ghost shifted like black sand pouring, until it was perfect, beautiful flesh. Dark long straight hair and dark eyes. Dark yet lambent nakedness. Poreless indefectible skin, smooth as newly spun silk. And it wasn’t a woman at all, but a girl, a prepubescent little girl. Nor was it a ghost…

A goddess, Smith realized.

The goddess’ voice eddied like water running through the bowels of a sewer, or garbage blown in gutters.

The new dark age needs a scribe.

Smith felt on fire inside. He watched his hand reach out, but it wasn’t the veined, liver-spotted hand he had known. It was a new hand, forged in truth, in acknowledgment. Smith wept, oblivious to the new hot blood, the fresh skin, strong muscles, and steady heart. He embraced the goddess.

He began to slide down, as if on a greased pole, sloughing off her perfect skin, and revealing her true age. Her horror sang to him, and embraced him back, the flensed figure gleaming in hate, disease, insanity. In despair and in pus.

In cruelty and heartbreak.

In truth.

Smith knelt in worship, and kissed the little feet, which were now caked by the blood, offal, and excrement of eons.

Afterword

Interchange, mutability, transposition, transfigurations. With this story, I transposed a certain aspect of myself into the meld of my fears. All writers, in one sense or other, try to predict the future, often their own. The protagonist is me, in some abstract realm. My fear…and perhaps any writer’s fear. If fiction can be a real thing, this is as real as I can get. I like this story very much, and I dedicate it to my father who died on Christmas night, 1986.

The Seeker

(For Mary)

Bock’s eyes flicked up. “Something buzzing the hopper, Sarge.”

Balls, SFC John Ruben thought. He unlocked the alert safe behind the driver’s compartment and removed the CEIC binder which contained today’s prefixes and code dailies.

Then: “Victor Echo Two Six, this is X-ray One. Acknowledge.”

Bock stalled over the radio and AN/FRA shift-converter. “Who the fuck’s X-ray One, Sarge? Division?”

Ruben checked the codebook. “It’s Air Force Recovery Alert Operations. Gonna get shit on by fly boys again. Answer it.”

“X-ray One, this is Victor Echo Two Six. Go ahead.”

“Proceed to incoming grid. Target perimeter positive.”

Bock held the mike away from himself like a chunk of rancid meat.

Ruben could not believe what he’d just heard. The pause hovered in static, then Ruben grabbed the mike. “X-ray One, this is Victor Echo Two Six Tango Charlie. Repeat your last transmission.”

“Proceed to incoming grid,” the radio answered back. “Target perimeter positive.”

His memory struggled with the reality of fright. The sequence seemed miles away. “Status white. Progress code?”

“Red.”

“Recall code?”

“None.”

“Directive order?”

“Directive order is standby at target perimeter. This is NOT a drill. This is NOT an exercise. Assume SECMAT alert state orange.”

“Orders logged,” Ruben droned. Holy mother of shit, he thought.

“Victor Echo Two Six, this is X-ray One. Out.”

Ruben hung up the AN’s mike. Bock was sweating. Jones, the track’s driver, craned back from the t-bar. “What gives, Sarge!”

“Calm down,” Ruben eased. But he could not calm the thought: This has never happened before.

“We’re at war,” Bock muttered.

The alert had sounded at 0412; they’d been in the field nearly a day now. Victor Echo Two Six was a modified M2 armored personnel carrier, fully CBN equipped, and its crew was what the U.S. Army Chemical Corps termed a hazmat field detection team. Their primary general search perimeter was familiar open scrubby land; they’d tracked this terrain dozens of times on past alerts. Ruben, the TC, hadn’t been worried until now — until he’d heard the magic words: Target perimeter positive.

“What are you guys, a bunch of dickheads?” he countered. “This is a CONUS alert. If we were at war, the whole state would be a clusterfuck by now, and the op stat would’ve been jerked up a lot higher than a CONUS. We’d be at Defcon Two at least. Think with your brains instead of your asses. If this was war, why would they recall every unit in the division except us?”

“This is shit, Sarge!” Jones was not appeased. “Something’s really fucked up!”

“Calm down. We’re not at war.”

Bock was shaking, muttering, “It fucking figures. I’m two weeks short, and this shit happens.”

“You guys are shitting your pickles for nothing. We had four of these last year, remember? One of the early warning sites probably picked up something in our telemetry line. It’s probably another meteor, or a piece of space junk. Relax, will you?”

“Here it comes,” Bock announced.

The XN/PCD 21 began to click. The hopper freqs shifted through their 5-digit discriminators. Then the mobile printer spat out their destination grid.

Bock slid out the map book, teeth chattering. Jones’ face was turning to paste. They were just boys, and they were shit-scared, but Ruben had to wonder if he was too.

He put his hands on their shoulders. “We gotta get our shit together, girls. We’re hardcore Army decon ass-kickers, and we don’t piss in our BDU’s every time an alert directive goes up. We ain’t afraid of nothin’. We eat napalm for breakfast and piss diesel fuel, and when we die and go to hell, we’re gonna shove the devil’s head up his ass and take the fuck over. Right now we gotta job to do, and I gotta know if you guys are with me.”

Bock wiped sweat off his brow with his sleeve. “Hardcore, Sarge. I’m no pussy. My shit’s tight, and I’m with you.”

“Jonesy?”

Jones gave the thumbs up. “Hell on fucking wheels, man! Nobody lives forever, so let’s roll!”

“Hardcore,” Ruben approved. “Squared-fucking-away goddamn die-for-decon outstanding.”

“Let’s kick ass!” Bock yelled.

“Decon!” Jones chanted.

Ruben handed Jones the grid. “Get this twin-tracked Detroit coffin rolling, Jonesy. Hammer down.”

Jones revved the throttle, whooping. The track’s turbocharged Cummins V8 roared. Bock strapped in behind the commo gear. Ruben had enlivened them, but for how long? What was happening out there? What’s waiting for us? he wondered.

“Proceed to target perimeter positive,” he said.

***

How powerful is the power of truth?

It was more a motto than a question. It was all that motivated him.

The writer didn’t believe in God, for instance. Now, if he saw God, then he’d believe in Him. He believed in nothing he couldn’t see, but that’s why he was here, wasn’t it? To see? Behind him, the bus disappeared into darkness. I see that, he thought.

Ahead, the sign blazed in blue neon: CROSSROADS.

“I see that, too. A drink, to help me think.”

But then he heard a word, or thought he did. It was not his voice, nor a thought of his own. He heard it in his head:

SUSTENANCE.

So he was hearing voices now? Perhaps he’d been drinking too much. Or, Not enough, he considered, half-smiling. All great writers drink. He could not dispel the notion, however, that he was entering something more than just a small-town tavern.

Dust eddied from the wood floor’s seams when he trod in and set down his bag. Yes, here was a real “slice of life” bar: a dump. Its frowziness, its cheap tables, dartboards, pinball machines — its overall Vacuus spiritum—delighted him. This was reality, and reality was what he sought.

Seek, he thought, and ye shall find.

“Welcome to Crossroads, stranger,” greeted the rube barkeep. The writer mused over the allegorical possibilities of the bar’s name. The keep had a basketball beer belly and teeth that would compel an oral hygienist to consider other career options. “What can I get ya?” he asked.

“Alcohol. Impress me with your mixological prowess, sir.”

Only three others graced these eloquent confines. A sad-faced guy in a white shirt sat beside a short, bosomed redhead. They seemed to be arguing. Closer up sat an absolutely obese woman with long blond hair, drinking dark beer and eating an extra-large pizza. Her weight caused the stool’s legs to visibly bend.

You’re here to seek, the writer reminded himself. So seek.

“May I join you?”

The blonde swallowed, nodding. “You ain’t from around here.”

“No,” the writer said, and sat. Then the keep slapped a shooter down. It was yellow. “House special, stranger.”

It looked like urine. “What is it?”

“We call it the Piss Shooter.”

The writer’s brow rose. “It’s not, uh… piss, is it?”

The keep laughed. “‘Course not! It’s vodka and Galliano.”

The writer sniffed. Smells all right. “Okay, here’s to — what? Ah, yes. Here’s to formalism.” He drank it down.

“Well?”

“Not bad. Very good, actually.” He reached for his wallet.

“Uh-uh, stranger. That there’s a tin roof.”

“What?”

The keep rolled his eyes. “It’s on the house.”

“What’cha want in a dull’s-shit town like this?” inquired the fat blonde, chewing. Her breasts were literally large as human heads. “Ain’t nothin’ around for fifty miles in any direction.”

Isolatus proximus. “I’m a writer,” the writer said. “I travel all over the country. I need to see different things, different people. I need to see life in its different temporal stratas.”

“Stratas,” the fat blonde said, nodding.

“I come to remote towns like this because they’re variegated. They exist separately from the rest of the country’s societal mainstream. Towns like this are more real. I’m a writer, but in a more esoteric sense… I’m…” He thought about this. He thought hard. He lit a cigarette and finished. “I’m a seeker.”

“You’ve got to be shitting me!” the guy in the white shirt shouted to the short red-haired girl. “You’ve slept with FIVE OTHER GUYS this week? Jeeeeesus CHRIST!”

She sipped her Tequila Moonrise reflectively, then corrected, “Sorry. Not five. Six. I forgot about Craig.” She grinned. “His nickname’s Mr. Meat Missile.”

“Jeeeeesus CHRIST!” White shirt exploded.

“He must be in love with her,” the writer remarked.

“He don’t get her pussy off,” the fat blonde said.

The keep was polishing a glass. “What’s that you were sayin’? You’re a seeker?

“Well, that’s an abstraction, of course. What I mean is I’m on a quest. I’m searching for some elusive uncommon denominator to perpetuate my aesthetic ideologies. For a work of fiction to exist within any infrastructure of resolute meaning, its peripheries must reflect certain elements of truth. I don’t mean objective truths. I’m talking about ephemeral things: unconscious impulses, psychological propensities, etc. — the underside of what we think of as the human experience.”

“I’ve never heard such shit in my life!” White Shirt was still yelling at the redhead. “Those other guys don’t love you! I love you!”

The redhead doodled indifferently on a napkin. “But I don’t want to be loved,” she said. Then she grinned as intensely as an indian devil mask. “I just want to be fucked.”

Jeeeeeeesus Chriiiiiiiiiiiiist!”

“You gotta tune ’em out,” advised the fat blonde, now halfway done with the pizza and starting her third dark beer. Grease glossed her lips and chin.

“The seeker,” said the keep. “I like that.”

“But what exactly do you write about?” asked the blonde.

What I write about isn’t the point, it’s how I write about it.” And then, with no warning, the thought returned: How powerful is the power of truth? The writer smoked his cigarette deep. “Honesty is the vehicle of my aesthete. The truth of fiction can only exist in its bare words. Pardon my obtuseness, but it’s the mode, the application of the vision which must transcend the overall tangibilities. Prose mechanics, I mean — the structural manipulation of syntactical nomenclatures in order to affect particularized transpositions of imagery.”

“Oh,” said the fat blonde. “I thought you meant, like, fucking’n shit like that.”

The writer frowned.

He swigged another Piss Shooter, another tin roof. The fat blonde’s pizza lay thick with extra cheese, anchovies, and big chunks of sausage beneath a sheen of grease. Her stomach made fish tank noises as she voraciously ate and drank.

“Why, why, why?” White Shirt looked close to tears, or a schizoaffective episode, staring at the redhead. “At least tell me why I’m not good enough anymore?”

“You don’t want to know,” she nonchalantly replied.

White Shirt hopped off his stool to stalk around her. Anger made his face appear corrugated. “Go ahead! Tell me! Spit it out! I WANT TO KNOW!”

The redhead shrugged. “Your dick’s not big enough.”

Oh, dear, thought the writer.

White Shirt’s low moan issued out like that of a just-gelded walrus. He stumbled away crosseyed, and staggered out of the bar.

The keep and fat blonde ignored the outburst. The redhead looked at the writer, smiled, and said, “Hey, he wanted the truth, so I gave it to him.”

Truth, thought the writer. Suddenly, he felt empty, desolate.

“But if you’re a seeker,” posed the keep, “What’cha seekin’?”

“Ah, the universal question.” The writer raised a finger, as if to preamble a scintillating wisdom. “And the answer is this. The true seeker never knows what he’s seeking until he finds it.”

The fat blonde’s wet eating noises ceased; she’d finished the entire pizza. “Here’s something for you to write about,” she said. She leaned over and kissed the writer on the mouth.

Her lips tasted of grease and cheese. But actually the kiss inspired him. Her mouth opened and closed over his, tongue probing unabashed. The writer found himself growing aroused. Truth, he thought frivolously. Ephemeral reality. This was it, wasn’t it? Spontaneous human interface, inexplicably complex yet baldly simple. Synaptic and chemical impulses of the brain meshed with someone’s lifetime of learned behavior. It was these simple truths that he lived for. They nourished him. Human truth is my sustenance, he thought, and remembered the voice he’d heard. Yes, sustenance.

The fat blonde’s kiss grew ravenous. Then—

urrrrrrp

She threw up directly into the writer’s mouth.

It had come in a single, heaving gust. He tasted everything: warm beer, lumps of half digested sausage and pizza dough, and bile — lots of bile. Utter disgust bulged his eyes and seized his joints. Then came a second, and larger, gust, which she projected right into his lap.

The writer fell off his stool.

“There,” said the blonde. “Write about that.”

“Ooooo-eee!” remarked the keep. “That one was a doozy, huh?”

The writer, flat on his back and in shock, could only groan, staring up. The heavy, hot blanket of vomit lay thick from chin to crotch; it oozed down his legs slow as lava when he got up. He spat immediately, of course, and incessantly, and out flew several chunks of sausage and strings of flecked slime. Almost blind, he staggered for the door.

“Come again… seeker,” laughed the keep.

“Hope you liked the pizza,” bid the fat blonde.

The writer grabbed his suitcase and stumbled out. The dusk in the sky had bled to full dark, and it was hot outside. He reeked, drenched. He was mortified. Human truth is my sustenance? he thought. Jesus. The awful tinge in his mouth seemed to buzz, and he could still taste the sausage.

Then he heard the voice again, not in his ears, in his head.

What was it?

He stood stock-still in the empty street, sopped in vomit.

***

The power of truth? He’d come here seeking truth and all he’d gotten was puked on. And he was hearing voices, too. Great, he thought. Fantastic. But he had to find a motel, get showered and changed.

He strayed up the main drag, aimless. Shops were closed, houses were dark. The bus station was closed too, and in his wandering he found not one motel.

Then he saw the church.

It sat back quaintly behind some trees, its clean white walls lambent in the night. What relieved him was that it looked normal. The front doors stood open and, within, candles could be seen.

He entered and crossed the nave. The pews were empty. Ahead, past the chancel, a shadow lingered, mumbling low words like an incantation.

It was a priest, reading rites before an open coffin.

“Excuse me, father,” the writer said. “I need to know—”

The priest turned, chubby in black raiments. He was glaring. In the coffin lay the corpse of an old woman.

“What!”

“I’m new in town. Are there any motels?”

“Motels? Here?” the priest snapped. “Of course not!”

The writer’s eyes flicked to the open coffin. “Do you by chance know when the next bus arrives?”

“How dare you come in here now!” the priest outraged. He pointed abruptly to the coffin. “Can’t you see my mother’s died?”

“Sorry, father,” the writer groped but thought, God! He hurried back out. In the street he felt strange, not desolate as before, but woozy, disconnected. Is it the town, or is it me? A sudden and profuse flash of sweat made his vomit-drenched shirt feel like a coat of mucus.

The sweat was a herald, like a trumpet—

Oh, no.

— for the voice:

SEEKER. SEEK!

A block down, the sign glowed over the transom: POLICE

His footsteps echoed round his head like a halo as he trotted up. Surely the police would know about the next bus. He pushed through the door, was about to speak, but froze.

A big cop with chopburns glared at him. “What’cha want, buddy? I’m busy.”

“I…” the writer attempted. The cop was busy, all right. He stood behind a long-haired kid who’d been handcuffed to a chair. A tourniquet had been fashioned about the kid’s neck via a cord and nightstick.

“Okay, punk,” warned the cop. “No more bullshit. Where’s them drugs?”

The kid, of course, couldn’t have answered if he’d wanted to. He was being choked. The mouth moved in panic within the strained, ballooning face.

“Still not talkin’, huh?” The cop gave the tourniquet another twist.

“What the hell are you doing?” shouted the writer.

“Police business. This kid’s got drugger written all over him. Sells the shit to kindergarten kids probably. All that crack and PCP, you now? We gotta rough ’em up a little; it’s the only way to get anything out of ’em.”

Rough them up a little? The writer stared, flabbergasted. The cop twisted the tourniquet all the way down, until the cord creaked. The kid’s body stiffened up in the chair, his face turning blue.

“Talk, punk. Where’s your stash? Who’s your bagman?”

“How can he talk!” the writer shouted the logical question. “You’ve got a tourniquet around his fucking neck!”

“Scram, buddy. This is a police matter.” The cop paused and looked down. “Aw, shit, there he went.” The kid twitched a few times, then fell limp, swollen-faced in death.

Madness, the writer thought.

The cop was unwinding the tourniquet, taking off the cuffs. “Just a drugger, no loss. No point in wastin’ it, either.” The cop gave the writer a comradely look. “Girl pussy, boy pussy, s’all pink on the inside, right, buddy? Help me get his pants off so’s we can poke him ’fore he’s cold.”

A sign on the wall read To Protect and Serve. The writer, brain thumping, teetered out of the station.

Phone, he thought dumbly. He abandoned his suitcase in the street and staggered on. Something’s happened here. Got to call someone, get some help. The houses set back off the street looked harmless. He knocked on the first door. A middle-aged man answered it—

“Yes? Can I help you, young man?”

“I…” the writer attempted. The man wore eyeshadow and cherry-red lipstick. He also wore panties, garters, and stockings. Stainless-steel clamps were screwed down on his nipples, distending the fleshy ends.

“Sporty, wouldn’t you say?”

“Huh?”

The man lowered his frilled panties, revealing a penis and scrotum glittery with safety pins. One pin pinched closed the end of the foreskin.

“Uh…sporty, yes,” the writer said.

“Would you care to touch it?”

“Uh, well, no—”

The writer jogged off. At the second house he peered through the storm door and saw a beautiful nude woman chasing a giant St. Bernard, and a man at the third house stood grinning on his porch rail, a noose around his neck. “Fly, Fleance! Fly!” he quoted Shakespeare, and stepped off the rail. Heavy, tonerous thuds greeted the writer at the fourth house. WHACK-WHACK-WHACK! WHACK-WHACK-WHACK! In the kitchen window, he saw a man very contentedly cracking open a baby’s head with a large meat tenderizer while an aproned woman prepared a fry pan in the background. The man pried the cranium apart and began to spoon the tender brains into a bowl. “Olive oil or canola?” the man asked the wife.

The writer foundered away, gagging, and tripped back into the street. The impact of vision made him feel sledgehammered in the face. He’d seen enough; he didn’t want to be a seeker anymore — he just wanted to go home. Then the sweat rushed again, and the voice, like a raddled chord, fell back into his head:

BUT THERE’S SO MUCH, SO MUCH FOR US TO SEEK.

Whatever did that mean? Without reservation, the writer bent over and threw up. This seemed the logical thing to do, an obligation, in fact, after all he’d seen. Madness, he repeated, urping it up spasm after spasm like a human sludge-pump. Ropes of saliva dangled off his lips as his stomach rocketed out its contents. The wet splattering crackled down the street.

Oh, what a day.

Done, he felt worse, he felt decamped. The particulate mush of his last meal glittered nearly jewel-like in the frosty glow of streetlamps. He felt empty, not just in the belly, but in the heart. Had he thrown up his spirit as well?

Do I even have a spirit? he thought.

Too many things cruxed him. The town’s madness, of course; and the voice — most certainly. Hearing voices in one’s head was not generally an indication of well being. What cruxed him most of all, though, was simply his own being here. Why had he come? For the truth, for shards of human realities to nourish his writing, but now he wondered. It made no sense, yet somehow he felt the opposite: that actually a lack of truth had evoked him. Vacuities, not realities. Wastelands.

Lies.

Absurdly, he sat beside the puddle of vomit, to reflect. Was throwing up catalytic to subjective conjecture? He felt rejected, but by what? By the mainstream? By society? In a sense he was — all writers were, and perhaps it was the backwash of his rejection that had instigated the summons, chosen him somehow. Human truth is my sustenance. How powerful is the power of truth? But the more he plied the speculation, the harder he laughed. The quest had backfired, leaving him to sit gutterside as his vomit spread into strange shapes between his feet. Seeker, my ass, he concluded. Bugger truth. All he cared about now was the next bus.

“Mother!” he heard.

The plea had sounded impoverished, a desperate whine like a lost child’s.

Then: I SHOW YOU TRUTHS, SEEKER. SEEK. SEEK OUT THE SUSTENANCE OF TRUTH. SHOW ME YOUR WORTH.

The writer smirked. What else have I got to do? He could feel the churchfront as he approached, as one might sense a particular face in a crowd. Candlelight caused the nave’s darkness to fitfully shift, populating the pews with a congregation of shadows, worshipers bereft of substance.

“Mother! I’m here!”

Aw, God, the writer thought, and it was the palest of thoughts, the bleakest and least sapient. What he saw numbed everything that he was. He stared toward the chancel as if encased in cement.

The coffin stood empty. Its previous tenant — the dead old woman — had been stripped of her last garments and lay stiff across the carpet, all gray-white dried skin and wrinkles, and a face like a dried fruit. Between the corpse’s legs lay the priest, black trousers at his ankles, copulating furiously.

“I’ll bring you back!” he promised, panting. His eyes squeezed shut in the most devout concentration. Sagging bags for breasts jiggled at the corpse’s armpits.

“You’re having sex with a corpse, for God’s sake!” shouted the writer.

The fornication ceased. The rage of this ultimate coitus interruptus focused in the priest’s eyes as sharply as cracked glass. “What?” he shouted.

“You’re fucking your mother’s corpse!”

“So?”

The writer shivered. “Correct me if I’m wrong — I’m not an expert on modern clergical protocol — but it’s my understanding that priests aren’t supposed to have sex, especially with their mothers, and more especially when their mothers are DEAD!”

The priest faltered, not at the writer’s objection, but at some inner query. A sad recognition touched his face as he withdrew and straddled the embalmed cadaver. “I can’t bring her back,” he lamented. “No, not like this.” His erection pulsed upward, a parodical stiff root. Forlornly, he picked something up.

The writer’s guts shimmied. What the priest had picked up was a pair of heavy-duty roofing shears.

“There’s only one way, I’m afraid,” mourned the priest. The writer shouted “No no no! Holy shit! Don’t do th—”

— as the priest unhesitantly clipped off his glans with the shears.

The obligatory scream shot about the nave; the glans fell to the carpet like a gumdrop.

The writer was backing away, his ears ringing. I do not need to see this, he thought. But something forced him to look, and by now he had a pretty good idea what that something was.

Blood jetted freely from the priest’s clipped member — yes, freely as water out of a garden hose. “Mother, oh, Mother,” he muttered, shuddering as the blood poured forth.

TRUTH, banged the voice in the writer’s head as he plodded in shock back out onto the street. Something’s made everyone in this town crazy, he realized.

NOT CRAZY. BLOOMED IN TRUTH, THE REAL TRUTH.

He ignored this; he had to. So how come I’m not crazy?

YOU’RE THE SEEKER, came his answer.

He gazed emptily down the street. He didn’t feel crazy, he felt fine. So why was he hearing voices?

AH, YES, he heard. SUSTENANCE!

Was it really madness, or was it susceptibility, as the voice seemed to infer? All his deliberating over truth, and what truth really was, had skirted one very important consideration. Perhaps truth was mutable. Like philosophy, art, technology— like life itself — perhaps old truths died and were replaced by new ones.

So the truth had changed? Was that it?

The writer banged through the swinging doors of the Crossroads.

“Look, he’s back!” said the fat blonde. “It’s the writer!”

“The seeker,” corrected the keep. “Ready for a shooter?”

“Cram your shooters, rube, and you,” he pointed violently at the fat blonde, “Stay the hell away from me.” She burped in reply, halfway done with her next pizza. The redhead was still at the rail too; on a bar napkin she absently doodled stick figures with inordinately large genitals.

“What brings ya back?” asked the keep.

The fat blonde ripped off another belch, which sounded like a tree cracking. “Maybe he wants more pizza.”

“You haven’t seen my hopelessly inadequate boyfriend wandering around, have you?” the redhead asked.

Jesus, thought the writer. “All I want to know is when the next goddamn bus comes into this goddamn town.”

“Call Trailways,” invited the keep. “Pay phone’s by the john.”

Finally, a phone!

“But hold up a sec.” The keep slapped a yellow shooter down. “Drink up, seeker. And don’t worry, it’s a—”

“I know, a tin roof.” Can’t hurt, can it? The writer shot the shooter back, froze mid-swallow, then spat it out. “What the fuck was that!”

“A Piss Shooter, partner.” The keep’s fly was open. “The house special. Bit more tasty than the last one, huh?”

“You’re all a bunch of psychopaths!” screamed the writer.

“Crank up one of them Snot Shooters,” suggested the fat blonde.

“Good thing I’ve had a cold all week. Makes ’em thicker, meatier.” The keep applied an index finger to his left nostril, then loudly emptied his right one into a shooter glass. “Yeah, there’s a beaut. Go for it, seeker.”

The writer’s head was reeling. “No, thanks. I’m trying to cut down.”

“Cheers,” said the fat blonde. She tossed it back neat, swallowing it more or less as a single lump. “Nice and thick!”

It just never ends, does it? The writer wobbled back to the pay phone, dropped in some change, and waited.

No dialtone.

“Goddamn this fuckin’ shit-house piece of shit crazy-ass motherfuckin’ town!” the writer articulated to the very best of his refined and erudite vocabulary. “Suckin’ fuckin’ redneck shitpile town ain’t even got a fuckin’ phone that works!”

“Phones haven’t worked since last night,” he was informed. It was the guy in the white shirt, who’d just come in the back way. He was hefting a shiny 44-oz aluminum softball bat. “Shh,” he said next. “I want to surprise her.” He snuck up behind the redhead, assumed a formidable batter’s stance, and swung—

Ka-CRACK!

The impact of the bat to the redhead’s right ear sent a big spurt of blood from her left. She flew off the stool like a golf ball off a tee and landed on the floor.

“How about that?” White Shirt softly inquired. “I’ll bet that was big enough for you.” The keep and fat blonde applauded. The writer just stared. White Shirt dragged the redhead out the back door by the throat.

“Still ain’t found what’cha seek, huh, seeker?” commented the keep. “Still ain’t found the truth. Well lemme tell ya somethin’…truth can change.”

The writer peered at him.

“I know what the truth is,” claimed the fat blonde.

“Yeah?” the writer challenged. “Tell me then, you fat hunk of shit redneck walking trailer-park puke-machine. What is the truth?”

“It’s black!”

Great. The truth is black. Wonderful. The writer started for the back door, but the keep implored, “Don’t go yet. You’ll miss my next one.” He was lowering his trousers.

“Jizz Shooters!” cried the fat blonde.

Laughter followed the writer out the door. It made him feel rooked. Perhaps in their madness they knew something he didn’t. Perhaps madness, in this case, was knowledge.

In the alley, White Shirt was eviscerating the redhead with a large hunting knife. Less than patiently, he rummaged through wet organs like someone looking for something, cufflinks maybe. “Give it back!” he shouted at the cooling gore. “I want it back!”

The writer leaned against the wall and lit a cigarette. “Buddy,” he asked quietly. “Could you please tell me when the next bus comes through town?”

“There aren’t any busses anymore. Things have changed.”

Changed, the writer thought.

THE TRUTH HAS CHANGED, elaborated the voice. YOU WERE RIGHT. IT HAS BEEN REBORN, THROUGH ME. I LIVE ON IT.

The writer gave this some thought.

“I’m looking for my love,” White Shirt remarked and gestured the redhead’s opened belly. “I gave her my love, and I want it back.” He scratched his head. “It’s got to be in there somewhere.”

“Love is in the heart,” the writer pointed out.

“Yeah, but this girl was heartless.”

“Well, the patriarchal Japanese used to believe that love was in the belly, the intestines. They believed that the belly was the temple of the soul on earth. That’s why they practiced ritual suicide by disembowelment — to release the soul and free the spiritual substantate of their love.”

“Intestines,” White Shirt contemplated. “So…if I gave my love to her…” He stared into the tilled gut, fingering its wares. “To get it back, I have to bring it into me?”

The writer shrugged. “I can’t advise you. The decision is yours.”

White Shirt began to eat the girl’s intestines.

The writer’s sweat surged. The redhead was as dead as dead could be, if not deader. Nevertheless, as her ex-lover steadily consumed the loops of her innards, her eyes snapped open and her head turned.

She looked directly at the writer.

“He’s taking his love back,” she giggled.

“I know,” said the writer.

“It…tickles.”

“I would imagine so.”

The moon shone in each of her eyes as a perfect white dot. “Real truth sustains us, just in different ways.”

Sustains, considered the writer. Sustenance.

“The end of your quest is waiting for you.”

The writer gulped. “Tell me,” he pleaded. “It’s very important to me. Please.”

“Look for something black,” she said, and died again.

The writer leapt the alley fence. The fat blonde had said the same thing. Black. But it was nighttime. How could he hope to find something black at night?

Then he heard something — a stout, distant chugging.

A motor, he realized.

The he saw…what?

A glow?

A patch of light that was somehow, impossibly, black.

He was standing in a schoolyard — ironically a place of learning. The light shimmered in a rough trench-like bomb crater. It’s black, he thought. In the distance sat the source of the motor noise: a squat U.S. Army armored personnel carrier.

The writer looked into the dropped back hatch.

“Don’t go out there,” warned a crisp yet muffled voice.

Murky red light bathed the inner compartment like blood in a lighted pool. A sergeant in a gas mask and full decontamination gear slouched at a console of radio equipment. Very promptly, he pointed a 9mm pistol at the writer’s face.

The writer urinated in his pants, just as promptly. “Don’t shoot me. I’m only a novelist.”

The masked sergeant seemed very sad. “Bock and Jones. I had to send them out. It’s a DECON field order. The lowest ranking men go into the final exclusion perimeter first.”

Final exclusion perimeter?

“I think it got them,” the sergeant said

It, the writer reckoned.

In the mask’s portals, the sergeant’s eyes looked insane. “When my daughter was an infant, I’d rock her in my lap every night.”

“That’s, uh, that’s nice, sergeant.”

“It gave me a hard on…. She’s fourteen now. I drilled a hole in the bathroom wall so I can watch her take showers.”

“They have counselors for things like that, I think.”

A dark suboctave suffused into the words. “At midnight, the wolf howls.”

The writer winced. “What?”

“I never knew my father.”

Then the sergeant shot himself in the head.

Sound and concussion hit the writer like a physical weight. BANG! It shoved him off the top of the vehicle as the sergeant’s mask quickly filled up with blood.

I HUNGER FOR TRUTH TOO, loomed the voice. BUT TO SEE IT, IT MUST BE REVEALED. DO YOU UNDERSTAND? YOU MUST UNDERSTAND.

The writer strayed into the yard. Yes, he thought he did understand now. Here was what his whole life had been leading him to. All that he’d sought, in his absurd pretensions as a seeker, had brought him to this final test. There could be no going back. His preceptor awaited, the ultimate seeker.

A second decon soldier lay dead in the grass. There were no hands at the ends of his arms, and the stumps appeared burned. Some colossal inner pressure had forced his brains out his ears.

“Get out of here, you civvie fucker!” someone commanded. A third soldier strode through shadows, a kid no more than twenty. “The light! It’s mine!”

“Are you quite sure about that?”

“It’s…God. I’m taking it!”

A TEST? WATCH.

“Watch!” the boy cried. “I’ll prove it’s mine!” He ran manic to the trench, his young face in awe above the radiant black blur. “Hard-fucking-core, man! I’m taking God!” He put his hands into the light, eyes wide as moons, and picked it up. But in only a second the light fell back to its resting place, melting through the boy’s hands. He stood up stiff and convulsed, a silent scream in his lips.

The voice trumpeted. ALAS. FAILURE.

This disconcerted the writer, for he knew he was next. For the last time in his life, then, he asked himself the ever important query. How powerful is the power of truth?

I’LL SHOW YOU.

The boy’s innards prolapsed through his mouth in a few slow, even pulses; the writer thought of a fat snake squeezing from its hole. Lungs, liver, heart, g.i. tract — everything that was inside now hung heavily outside, glimmering. Then the red heart, amid it all, stopped beating, and the boy fell dead.

ONLY FAITH CAN SAVE YOU NOW.

“I kind of figured that,” the writer admitted.

THE TRUTH IS MY SUSTENANCE. I EXIST TO EXPOSE IT, TO GIVE IT FLESH. I DRAW IT OUT SO THAT IT CAN BE REAL AND, HENCE, SUSTAINING. DO YOU UNDERSTAND? TOO OFTEN THE TRUTH HIDES UNDERNEATH. WITHOUT REVELATION, WHAT PURPOSE CAN THERE BE IN TRUTH?

Good point, the writer mused.

WE’RE BOTH SEEKERS, WE BOTH HAVE QUESTS. LET OUR QUESTS JOIN HANDS NOW IN THE REAL LIGHT OF WHAT WE SEEK.

“Yes,” said the writer.

WILL YOU MINISTER TO ME?

“Yes.”

THEN THERE IS BUT ONE DOOR LEFT FOR YOU TO ENTER. GLORY OR FAILURE. TRUTH OR LIES. THE TEST OF YOUR FAITH IS UPON YOU.

The writer looked into the shimmering trench. This would either be the end or the beginning; it was providence. To turn away now would reduce his entire life to a lie. He began to reach down, softly smiling.

I am the seeker, he thought.

He put his hands into the light.

YES!

He picked it up. He looked at it, cradled it. The glory on his face felt brighter than a thousand suns. The test was done, and he had passed.

Was the black light weeping?

CARRY ME AWAY, it said.

He took it into the Army vehicle and closed the back hatch.

THERE’S SO MUCH, SO MUCH FOR US TO SEEK.

In the driver’s compartment, the writer lit a cigarette. Looks simple enough, he observed. A t-bar, an accelerator, and a brake. Automatic transaxle, low and second. The fuel gauge read well over half.

He thought of sustenance, the first pronouncement of the light. This town had been too small; that was the problem: tiny, dry. There weren’t enough people here to provide the truth its proper flesh. But that was all right. He knew it wouldn’t take long to get to a really big city.

SUSTENANCE, SEEKER, whispered the light like a lover.

The seeker put the vehicle into gear and began to drive.

Afterword

In 1989, I was in love with a girl named Mary. Things didn’t really work out, to say the least. It was a violent relationship: she punched the crap out of me many a time, and the relationship ended abruptly as a car crash. It was a wonderful disaster, however, a fabulous catastrophe. I loved her — too oblivious to realize the incompatibility. I was blind. Much like the protagonist of this story, I felt I was searching for something, and when I found it, it was already a heap of ashes. It had changed. Something I felt was a certain truth had changed into something else. Nevertheless, my involvement with her provided a tremendous creative impetus for which I will always be grateful. She was a “formalist”; she was a ballerina — she manipulated the strictures of art with her body. Then one day she simply gave it up. She stopped searching for whatever it was she sought.

There should be some obvious symbolism in this piece. Too often the things we think are most important to us are supplanted by something altogether opposite, often something outrageous. A philosophical writer seeking “truth” finds out that the real truth is little more than a gross-out B-movie.

Pay Me

(For Betsey)

I’m trying to think what this is.

Providence? A confession? No, not even close. Words like that ring too thinly, don’t you think? Nor could it be anything so stale as a rite of passage. My God, a passage to what?

These are excuses — lies. Like touching a lover’s thigh and feeling shadow instead of flesh.

Sometimes it’s hard to write honestly. Without truth, without the revelation of what things really are, it’s just more lies. More shadows in want of flesh.

It says — in Ezekiel, I think: I make blood your destiny. That’s God talking, not me. And if God can’t reveal the truth, who can?

So I guess that’s what this really is. I guess this is my blood.

***

Smith wasn’t sure what to make of it; he approached the way dared children might edge toward a house said to be haunted. LIVE SEX! boasted the sign in blue neon. D.C.’S BEST! ALL YOUNG PRETTY GIRLS! LIVE SEX LIVE SEX LIVE SEX!

The place was called The Anvil; Smith smiled at an obvious symbology. He remembered it as one of the many bottomless bars wedged into the city’s porno district. Now, though, it seemed The Anvil had graduated to more definitive designs. Smith felt confused. What, after so many years, had brought him back? He was a writer; he wanted things to write about, real things, real truths in a real world. He wanted substance, not tales; he wanted people and lives and honest experience, not cardboard cut-outs and soap opera dialogue. He figured his professional insights had posted a challenge. So here he was. Couldn’t better judgment, in a sense, also be called cowardice?

Music rocked into the street when he opened the door. He shouldered through a standing crowd in a brick-arched entrance, craning his neck to sense The Anvil’s depth. The $25 cover didn’t seem to thwart business — people were jammed in attendance. Smith had come here a few times during college, with friends. It seemed larger now, a cavernous expansion of the layout he remembered. The main stage existed in a stagnant haze of glare, accentuated by multicolored spotlights set to throb with the music. Around all this, dozens of tables and chairs were arranged in uneven concentric circles. The stage was empty, save for an armless chair and a loop harness suspended from the ceiling. The loop cast a shadow like a hangman’s noose.

Two stone-faced city cops eyed for minors near the bar, but no one seemed to care. Smith thought, temporal excommunication. They were invisible here, shunned. Outsiders in the chasm’s jubal.

A large video screen rounded one corner — entertainment between the acts. Smith winced. This was “homegrown” fare; you could always tell by the trackmarks on the girls’ arms, and forced smiles full of broken teeth. The grainy shot zoomed in from behind for the eloquent close-up of frenetic copulation. Then a cut to the girl’s head rocking on the desk. Was she asleep? Eventually the penis withdrew and offered its obligatory ejaculus externus. High class stuff, Smith thought.

Consciously he wanted to leave — this was not his territory. Places like this were dangerous, and not of his ilk. Drug deals took place here; prostitution was solicited. Fights broke out on a regular basis. There’d even been police raids. But down deep Smith wanted to see—he needed to — as if seeing would verify the reality he pursued, whatever that might be. He was an outsider, too, goodie two shoes in the den of iniquity. His discomfort excited him; it made him feel, somehow, more like a writer. Cowards die a thousand times, he reflected and almost laughed. But when he began to search for a table, his arm was grabbed, spinning him around. Suddenly a girl was shouting in his face. “Hey—hey! It is you! My God, I haven’t seen you in ages!”

The moment warped, mental feelers searching for a bearing. Then: recognition. He knew this girl.

“Lisa?” he queried. He’d had a crush on her as a kid, but the crush had never progressed past distanced longing. Her odd haircut and glossy blue-vinyl overcoat made her look like some kind of pop baroness. It dizzied him to see her in such contrast — in school she’d always dressed like a minister’s daughter.

“Lisa,” he finally managed. “The last time I saw you was in—”

“High school,” she finished. “I know, I know. Ten years.”

Smith groped for some cordiality, but before he could speak she was yanking him through the throng by the arm. The meeting had transpired so quickly Smith was flabbergasted. He couldn’t stop wondering what Lisa, of all people, was doing in this seamy place.

She led him to a table marked RESERVED, then ordered two beers from a mohawked blonde with glittered nipples and an orange g-string. When Lisa looked at him she seemed to smile through a wan aura. Smith felt hit in the face by a flying stone; it was the most beautiful smile he’d ever seen.

“Surprised to see me?” she asked.

“I, uh,” he replied. He shook his head. “You look as good as you did in ’83.”

“Do I really?”

“Well, no. Actually you look better.”

She leaned forward, coyly, as if to tell a secret. A subtle scent drifted up, clean hair and a hint of perfume that Smith found intensely arousing. “You know, this is really freaky,” she enthused. “But I was poking around my basement today, and I found one of my old yearbooks. I opened it up and the first face I saw was yours. And here you are, a couple of hours later, sitting right in front of me.”

“A classic example of the power of the feminine mystique,” Smith joked. It might make a good social allegory. “Come to think of it, I did trudge here in zombie-like state, beckoned by your psychic call.” He grinned stupidly, lit a cigarette. “I still can’t believe it’s you.”

Her big brown eyes beseeched him over a beautiful smile. She paused dreamily. “There’s so much I remember all of a sudden…”

“Like what?”

“Like how you used to look at me. Follow me around. Think of the silliest questions just for an excuse to talk to me…”

Smith turned red.

She touched his hand, laughing. “I’m sorry. I’m embarrassing you.”

You’re goddamned right you are, Smith thought. But then, weirdest of all, he replied, “I remember, too.”

The waitress brought the beers, and stooped to converse with Lisa. Smith used the distraction to take a good look. A black velvet choker with a tiny silver penis at its center girded her throat. Her hair hung perfectly cropped in a straight line, cut at the same level as the choker; it was lank and shiny as black silk. Barlight and shadows diced her face into a puzzle of hard, pretty angles. Her eyes were so big and bright they dominated her face almost surrealistically.

Smith’ hands tremored. He drained half his beer in one hit. Perhaps here was some of the very truth he felt bereft of. This was more than a girl — this was his past coming back to him, a reclamation. But what had his past been? Innocence? Smith frowned. Not innocence as much as intimidation and failure. He couldn’t see between the lines. Was this his past coming back? Or his weakness?

The waitress ignored him and sauntered away when he pulled out his wallet. “These are on the house,” Lisa told him. “In case you haven’t guessed, I work here.”

Smith had already figured as much. “What, waitressing?”

“Something like that.”

Probably a hostess or manager or something. Smith didn’t push it. For the next twenty minutes they talked, chatted to no account about innocuous things. She didn’t seem the least impressed that he was making a living as a writer.

It caught him off guard, however, when she observed, “But you’re not happy with your writing. You’re not fulfilled.”

She knows how to hit the nail on the head, Smith thought. Could he be read that easily? Or had his despair merely steepened to the point that it now showed? God knew he’d seen it happen to other writers. “I have this absurd and completely egotistical compulsion about… I don’t know. About the truth of things.”

“We all have our compulsions,” she remarked. She was looking right at him, smiling bright. “Nietzsche said there is no truth, right? And Sartre said it’s only in yourself. But I think they were both wrong. Truth is all over the place. You just have to know what door to look behind, or what face.”

Smith was bewildered; he could’ve laughed. I’m sitting in a strip joint with a girl I haven’t seen in ten years, talking about epistemology and abstract existential dynamics. Happens everyday. He wanted to comment. He wanted to make some sophisticated, highly intellectual observation, but it all felt suddenly sucked out of his head. He could not assess a collision of opposites so diverse. The charm, the silver penis, dangled at her throat like a finger waving. He could think of no reply. When he looked back at her, he realized the only obvious truth: She was beautiful.

Then, oddly, she continued, “But even truth has a price.”

Change the subject! his thoughts commanded. Say something, you ass! Anything! “We used to come here every now and then in college. You know, have a few beers, take a look at the…speculative dancers.”

“Boys will be boys,” she returned. “Don’t be timid in admitting that you’ve been here. Christ, I work here.”

“When did they start this live sex stuff?”

“About a year ago. Washington’s always been one step behind New York and LA. It’s a free country, right? Besides, every night is packed.”

Smith barely heard her. Her face seemed as puzzling as the night, an inexplicable perfection. A decade ago he’d dreamed of it, but what now? Where was the truth of it now?

“You’re beautiful,” he said.

“Everyone is. If you look closely enough.”

He was shivering. He couldn’t believe what he’d just said. Sitting with her, talking to her and merely seeing her was like trying to decode a cipher. Her smile never wavered. She squeezed his hand. “I would’ve gone out with you, you know, in school.”

“Oh, yeah?”

The smile turned sad. “But you never asked.”

The whole thing was too depressing. Smith knew he should leave, get out, go somewhere else for his sorry plight. But then the aura popped. The Anvil’s din rose to a wild roar. Some huge young man had stepped onto the stage, grinning and taking bows as the audience whooped. The guy looked like a body builder, all shining skin and corded, flexing muscles. He probably weighed 220 without an ounce of fat. He was completely naked but for a studded black-leather collar and wrist bands. That and the mustache and shoulder-length hair gave him the appearance of a Barbarian. But Smith could only gawk at what everyone else in the place was surely gawking at. The guy’s penis, though limp, was huge. It dangled between his legs like a flap of steak.

“Excess is the name of the game at The Anvil,” Lisa commented. “How’s that for a donkey-rig?”

Smith gulped. He’d never felt right talking to girls about sexual details, much less penises of extraordinary size, but even he had to half-chuckle. “It looks like something that should hang in a smokehouse. I hope his partner has a good health plan.”

“His name’s Do-Horse. A real scream. We didn’t hesitate to hire him once he showed us his qualifications.”

Smith had always believed that morality was relative. He was not a Christian, yet he knew travesty when he saw it. He stared at Do-Horse. The dense, pumped-up muscles and brash grin made him not a man but a caricature, a personification of moral desertion.

Lisa let out a long, uneasy sigh. “You always were a gentleman. Aren’t you going to ask me what I do here? Aren’t you even wondering?”

“I’m wondering,” Smith admitted, spewing smoke.

“Pay attention and you’ll see.”

With Smiths’ low groan came images of beauty defiled, like dropping fresh-picked flowers into pits of excrement, like pissing into spring water. The applause grew deafening as Lisa wended toward the stage. She stepped up and shed the plastic overcoat; her sudden nudity glowed in the stagelight. She turned and bowed, raised her arms, giving the crowd its visual appetizer. She was a caricature herself — of desire unbridled, a living object of men’s lust. Her body was long, willowy, very slender, but with large, high breasts and sharp contours. Her hips turned to highlight her pubis, which was hairless and smooth, a protuberant cleft. Do-Horse strode the stage a last time, flexing softball-sized biceps and tensing the rippled musculature of his back. Then he sat spread-legged in the chair. Lisa knelt at once and took hold of his cock. It drooped like a fat, lazy snake.

Smith felt paralyzed, hands flat on the table, eyelids glued open. This was awful, a passion play from the abyss. Do-Horse had come erect instantly. The glans, large as a baby apple, seemed to pop into Lisa’s mouth. She blew him in long, suffocating strokes, while applause surged like machine gun fire.

The thing must’ve been a foot long, and Smith actually jolted when every inch of it slid quickly down her throat. “Deep throat, my ass!” someone shouted. “This is deep stomach!” Smith thought he saw hunger in her bulged eyes. Her cheeks looked stuffed, her stretched-open jaw made her face long and narrow. My God, Smith thought. My God, my God.

Do-Horse lifted her up, pulled her mouth off. Her ass spread against the leather strap when he placed her in the harness. Long slim legs hung loose; she looked levitated as she grasped the suspending cord. Do-Horse knelt to plow her sex with his tongue, which, like the rest of him, seemed inordinately large. The hot lights beat down; sweat shone on her flesh like lacquer. All the while, Lisa squirmed in the harness, her feet pedaling the course of this oral preludial. When Do-Horse stood up, the shadow of his erection played over her belly, a ghost-serpent ranging over white valleys. Lisa reached up and caressed the equally large testicles, then began to stroke the shaft. In time, she guided the dome to her sex. The dome disappeared. Do-Horse grinned, paused, then shoved it all into her at once.

A hush swept over the crowd. Lisa shuddered at the first thrusts, then slipped into the rhythm, more and more intent. That’s all Smith could see in her now, an intricacy of intentness, matrixes crossing — flesh and spirit. The clarity of details revolted him, the shine of sweat on skin, the motion of muscles, the moaning and the wet sounds in sudden pin-drop silence. It hurt just to watch. The girth of the penis stretched Lisa’s sex to a tight, bright-pink rim. With each thrust, Smith feared it might break.

Do-Horse was an iceman, his grin false, his arousal automatic and cold as slate. His ministrations progressed with no more passion than a derrick wheel pounding dirt. Yet Lisa reacted the opposite. Again it was her intentness, like light focused to diamond-points. Her nipples stood up stiff and pink. Her shiny breasts quivered with the blows. She moaned and whipped her head around and locked her ankles behind the broad, tapered back.

Perhaps intentness was contagious. The once cacophonous crowd had transposed to a room full of frozen, staring faces and unblinking eyes. Every attention held fast, in compounded silence, to the lighted stage. Smith felt himself shivering. Was this truth, this one-act play of copulation as spectator sport? These were human bodies submitted for mutual use, the act of love corrupted to parody. Or perhaps it was Smith’s misconceptions. Besides, every night is packed, Lisa had told him. Maybe Smith’s ideals had kept unadmitted attractions buried to his consciousness. If not, then why hadn’t he left? It was the same sensation he’d felt upon entering, a melting pot of revulsion and excitement. Everything was opposites here, negative poles being forced to touch.

Lisa seemed close to convulsions when Do-Horse took her out of the harness. He lay her on the floor and straddled her, sat right down on her belly. The wet penis pointed up, pulsing. Lisa looked at it as though it were more than a cock, as if it were an icon of vast complexity, the graven image of the cult of flesh. She grabbed it with both hands, stroked back and forth first slowly, then with vigor. Do-Horse’s grin looked like a knife-cut in clay. His buttocks constricted as his climax broke. The long spurts of his semen jumped out in flying lines which formed chaotic glyphs in the air, arcane messages or even epitaphs. They landed on Lisa’s breasts and face as she milked out the last. The finishing touch surprised no one; Do-Horse leaned over and licked it all off.

In the aftermath, a great empty space filled Smith’s gut. The crowd was roaring again, standing in demented ovation. Amid the rain of applause, Lisa and Do-Horse rose, their naked bodies gleaming under the lights. They stepped to the stage edge, exchanged grins, and bowed to the audience.

The act was over. Smoking, drinking, oblivious, Smith felt consigned to stare back into his own thoughts. Other acts followed, variations of the same crossed matrixes of flesh and bipolarity. More bodies for use. More sex as spectacle. The Anvil thundered after each performance, while Smith’s despair sunk to the lowest stratas. Sometime later, a shadow listed behind him. He was stupefied and drunk. Only the trace scents of clean hair and soap caused him to look up. Purity in the Hall of Filth, he thought. Everything is opposites.

“Oh, Jesus,” came the sad voice. “You look so innocent sitting there.” Lisa was dressed again in the shiny new wave coat. The tiny silver penis dangled on the choker. “Shocked?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

“People change. Changing is an unchanging fact. I’m not ashamed of what I do.”

“I don’t expect you to be.”

Her words rose like an incantation, very far away. “I hope you find what you’re looking for. But in the meantime…” She slipped him a piece of paper.

“Here’s my address.”

***

Smith thought about her for days. He drank his meals and chain smoked, trying to refit the pieces of his psyche. He saw her in nagging images, he saw her in his dreams: the montage of flesh and throbbing lights, how her skin shined in sweat, how her eyes rolled back in her head as she was penetrated.

His manuscripts were waste to him now, all dissolution. He burned them in the fireplace and watched the flames. What did he expect to see? Revelation? Truth? All he saw was her, and the only thing even close to his concept of truth gazed back at him night after night from the blank page in his typewriter.

Knowing that he must not go to her only made him want to more. He felt buried alive in a grave of abstractions. Somehow, she was the key, she was the answer to the question, and Smith knew this without even knowing what the question was.

It was a cold night, and very quiet. He saw things in rhythms and weaveworks of textures. Colors hummed, unreal yet painfully intense. Streetlights burned like pots of phosphorus in a darkness of steeped dimensions and hidden heights. Before he knew it, numb from the wind, he was trudging up the steps of the stark rowhouse, was knocking emptily on the door.

“I knew you’d come,” she said.

The sound of her voice made Smith want to wilt, or even cry. Inside was warm as a womb; she brought him in and closed out the cold. A long, dark hall led to a room laved in twilight. There was only a bed and bare walls. Behind them, a narrow window framed the moon.

Neither of them spoke; words seemed a pointless objectivity. Smith’s heart thudded when she wriggled out of her jeans. The blouse slid off her shoulders like dark liquid. Moonlight etched her contours in tinsel, pools of shadow, luminous swirls of flesh.

She stripped him systematically, appraising him in circles. When she knelt, he felt tremendous embarrassment, but what man wouldn’t, knowing what she was used to? “It’s not big, it’s not like Do-Horse,” he muttered, a dreary excuse.

“It’s beautiful,” she whispered.

The touch of her lips on his penis made him feel speared by current. He came in her mouth almost spontaneously, which made him feel even less adequate. He was mad to have come here, idiotic to think he could pass for the man she needed him to be. He shivered as he limpened; his knees almost gave. “Jesus, I’m…” But she was smiling, already leading him to the bed.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “We have lots of time, don’t we?”

Time, Smith thought. Somewhere, a clock was ticking. Who even knew what time was?

She gradually caressed out his fears, kissed away his inadequacies. The warm bed felt like clouds. Mere seconds revived his erection; her hands on his skin, like catalytic prods, gave him life. Suddenly he felt powerful; he felt ready. What could constitute so rapid a resurgence of vitality? Their mouths bathed every inch of the others’ flesh, tongues wringing pleasure out of nerves. She tasted lovely and sharp. Her fluids sheened his mouth and ran down his neck. Her jerking orgasms made him feel brighter than the sun.

Eventually his cock found her sex. They coupled in every conceivable configuration, and in some perhaps not conceivable. Passion or lust — it didn’t matter because it was real either way, shreds of truth seeping into his mind through her body heat, her sweat and her musk and her kisses. That same intent — his own quest, perhaps — incited him. Was he giving to her, or was she taking? The question seemed meaningless; truth was not a question, and truth was all he’d ever been looking for. Truth, he thought. But what had she said? He came in her repeatedly, ignoring exhaustion. The channel of her sex seemed to gulp each release of his semen, seemed to rejoice over it as a gift, as though he were indeed giving something of himself.

But what had she said, earlier at the club?

They made love and they fucked — all night. The moon watched them over their backs. Their sweat drenched the bed, along with her own fluids, and his that ran out of her. When there was nothing left, absolutely nothing, Smith rolled over, gasping air. Traced in moonlight and sated, she leaned up, very gently stroking his chest and shriveled penis, cupping the spent testicles. Truth, he thought yet again. Then he remembered what she’d said: But even truth has a price… Smith gazed at her now.

Then he screamed.

The hand playing over his penis was now no more than gray-white skin stretched taut over bone. Her eyes looked sightless, huge, like crystals. Her features blurred and prolapsed. A stench rose. Her face drew out to a long, thin shape, her cheeks sucking in, her nose receding to a pair of skeletal holes. Smith was in bed with a corpse.

“Truths change,” grated the dead voice.

Smith could not speak, could not break the paresis.

The corpse smiled. “I’m your truth. The new truth.”

Smith convulsed, in waves. Even truth has a price.

“Pay me,” it said.

***

I work at The Anvil now, with Lisa and Do-Horse and all the rest. We are the oligarchs of a new order, not remnants of eons past but seeds of a new truth. We are the prize and the penalty, what is wanted and what can never be had. Others rise, wither, and die unnoticed, but we go on forever, changing only faces with changing times. We slake our lust on the passion — and the truth — of the world.

Stop in and see us sometime.

Afterword

This story has never been reprinted since the first edition of this chapbook. It’s socio-philosophical pornography. I wrote it, as I recall, in 1982 right after my first — awful — novel, Nightbait, was published. The story was immediately accepted by Hustler magazine, even to the point that the manuscript was copy-edited and sent to the typesetter. But it was typical new-writer luck. Right before they were going to pay me something like 800 bucks, the fiction editor left the company and the story was rejected by his successor, who said Hustler was no place for philosophical fiction. Fuck you. It’s the only time I’m ever gotten a manuscript returned with copy-edit marks. In other words, this story’s about twenty years old. Jesus. Not bad, I guess, for a twenty-four-year-old kid — er, well, you be the judge. It’s a symbology about how we viewed the beginning of the eighties: an age of sexual terror. Man, those were the days.

***

Edward Lee has had more than 40 books published in the horror and suspense field, including CITY INFERNAL, THE GOLEM, and BLACK TRAIN. His movie, HEADER was released on DVD by Synapse Films, in June, 2009. Recent releases include the stories, “You Are My Everything” and “The Cyesologniac,” the Lovecraftian novella “Trolley No. 1852,” and the hardcore novel HAUNTER OF THE THRESHOLD. Currently, Lee is working on HEADER 3. Lee lives on Florida’s St. Pete Beach. Visit him online at:

http://www.edwardleeonline.com