Friday, June 23, 2017

The Beheading Video
at the End of This Story

by Chris Tannhauser

[Author's Note:

Dearest Reader,

I have something for you, but we only get one shot at this.  Let's imagine you've just stepped from a helicopter into an eerie green night-vision hamlet where the only barking dogs walk on two legs.  You and your team stride smooth as steadicam operators to the door where the breaching tech affixes an explosive frame.  On the other side, unknown atrocities are unfolding and you will be the wooden shoe in those gears.  On the count of three --

-- you suddenly realize your "gun" is just your forefinger and thumb, and you are buck-ass naked.

Let's freeze it right there.

If you want to go through the door like that, then by all means, do proceed.  If, however, you want to go through in full kit then gird your fucking loins thusly:

1. Get a knife.  Any knife will do, as long as you can hold it in your hand as you read.

2. Get a cherry pie.  No, really -- an honest-to-god physical cherry pie.  If you don't have one handy, I recommend you STOP HERE and take the time to pick one up when convenient for you, then return when you have it in hand.  I said we only get one shot at this and proceeding without the pie is like going through that door with your pants on your head.  Please note that any cherry pie will do -- the $50 artisanal handcrafted one and the thing Fruit Pie the Magician feeds to the children in his basement all become the same shit in the end.

Take the time, get the pie.  We'll wait.




Welcome back.  That pie looks good, doesn't it?  It should -- most people never get pie.

You're almost ready to breach:

3. Cue up the music video "Cherry Pie" by Warrant, but DO NOT PLAY it at this time.  Be sure to get on the other side of any stupid ads so that when the moment comes and you are instructed to play the music video you don't get whined at about penis pills instead.

4. Continue reading and be sure to follow the instructions at the end.  Godspeed and happy hunting.






In order to have a reader feel connected to a story, you must first and foremost establish the humanity of the protagonists:  So here is our hero, slapping a child; and, there, our heroine, taking an immensely satisfying shit behind a parked car.  While you would probably much rather see them kissing, or, if we’re going all PG-13, doing some implied, off-screen hand stuff, I can assure you you’d be far less happy if it happened all at once, like it is in your head right now:  slapping, shitting, kissing, and hand stuff.  Which didn’t happen in the story at all—it only happened inside your dirty, dirty head.

It’s not your fault; heads are naturally dirty.  How do we know this?  Because they make a goddamn mess when they come off.  There’s blood, sure—but the real problem is what’s unleashed and multiplied through screens to haunt a billion more heads, like xeroxing a spectral hermit crab, out of the one that’s done, and into the eye holes of all the rest turned its naked way.

Our hero says something about how “Rudeness is calling the social contract’s bluff,” to a stunned mother while our heroine, who learned to speak French in Haiti, hikes up her jeans and flies the bird at some gawking squares in a Benz.  The cops are coming, maybe a couple minutes out, but really, we need to be doing all we can where we are right now to avoid the beheading video at the end of this story.

How do we do that?  By thinking clean thoughts—like the pope dying of an undiagnosed ectopic pregnancy.  I’m sorry, that’s not a clean way to go at all.  It would be uncomfortable for a good long while before it got all hot and sharp and slippery—remembering that “hemorrhage” is blood loss you can hear—so let’s try... an art design magazine spread of a pure, all-white living space where everything is the color of a just-scrubbed toilet inside a supermodel smile, maybe with a couple of ironic mannequins, you know, just hanging out in sassy eggshell bell-bottoms, milky-fringed vests and funky little snowdrift hats.  Like someone was about to say something pure white and mildly humorous and we’ve arrived just in time to be in on the joke, if you think the things that reverberate through perfectly empty heads might tickle you.

Because the cops are coming, and it would be great if our sufficiently human protagonists would just give up without a fight, or maybe get comically tased after a brief chase set to “Yakety Sax” because cops are people, too, and just want to go home at the end of the day to drink and beat their wives—I mean, hug their children.  But this is unlikely given that our hero has more than just a child-slapping boner in his pants—there’s an unregistered nine-mil, too—and our heroine is a cutter, and not in the young adult novel sense.

But we did it again, didn’t we?  We thought bad thoughts.  And every bad thought is a stepping stone to the—


Don’t you think about the beheading video at the end of this story!

(You just did, didn’t you.)

It’s gonna be alright—just repeat after me:  kittens, kittens, kittens.

Deep breath in...

...deep breath out.

Remember, always, that breath is distance, each one another step away from the womb and toward that dark horizon only briefly glimpsed like red carpet side-boob.


Now, because I already implied what happens with the cops we can just skip it, even though—I hate to say it—skipping it will bring us two whole pages closer to—

Okay, so maybe we do actually want to take the time here. 

Our hero and heroine could do that trick where you get something more problematic than your current problem to out-problem that problem—like the way the whole “give a mouse a cookie” tesseract is truncated with a rat trap.  So what’s more powerful than cops?  Well, velociraptors, but only the movie ones, as the real ones were tiny, and even then the movie ones would only have the upper hand briefly—once the surprise of seeing Officer Anonymous (two days from retirement!) get his throat torn out it would all be falling back and tightly-grouped, aimed shots.  There’s a reason one specific ape dominated the globe, a symptom of which is automatic weapons.  And dinosaurs had feathers—which is stupid—because the scientifically accurate version of this scene would look like cops fighting a bunch of turkeys.  But you know what?  Thinking about a poofy T. Rex, like an out-of-scale baby chick, is waaay better than a beheading video.

Aw, crap.  There it is again.

Okay, so what’s more powerful than cops...  The military!  At least they used to be until the professional constabulary up-armored themselves at the AFG-IRQ war surplus rummage sale, so I’m actually gonna say...

 “Illuminati mercenaries.”

I know what you’re thinking:  If they’re mercs, they wouldn’t necessarily know they were working for the Illuminati—that’s like part of the definition.  But, I counter, you don’t really know how the Illuminati works—that’s also part of the definition, and even if it doesn’t make sense I’m telling you that “not making sense” is the direction you need to go to have any hope of figuring all of this out.

So let’s fast-forward to where the cop cars form a flashing ring and the radii of drawn pistols indicate our heroes in the middle who have adopted kung fu stances (Tiger and Honey Badger, respectively) that will trend viral a couple minutes from now.  And for some reason there’s a man down, but it’s a brown one, so it only elicits three-fifths of the outrage a normal one would.

Predictably, everyone within visual range reorients their government-approved personal surveillance devices and, compelled by the yawning pit of meaninglessness we’re all spawned from, begins recording, allowing for a full 3D reconstruction of every balled fist and bullet trajectory later.

The cops are shouting things, things that sound like the lowing of foghorns to our hero and heroine in their accelerated battle-trance.

(It’s important to note here that a lone sheet of newsprint does not blow slowly across the scene.)

Now, this is that promised moment when some greater, darker torpedo lances out of the moon-hazed fog of the situation and detonates against the side of the destroyer, blowing chunks of crew and girlie mags and perfumed letters from home up through the hatches on pillars of fire.  Those Illuminati mercs, riding fluffy dinosaurs out of an unimaginably expensive time portal—but that would be ludicrous because it’s only ever happened in billionaire dreams—and once in real life—never to be repeated again.  You’d be far more likely to believe they materialize in silent black helicopters that decloak thirty feet off the deck, perfectly stealthy, unheard and unfelt due to their rotor wash being directed upwards from their weird, flickering blades.  The truth is that looking up is the totally wrong direction—you should be looking in, inside the heads of the cops who went to that all-expenses-paid United Nations Law Enforcement retreat in Turkmenistan, the one where they sat through an entire day of droning meetings in anticipation of the strange trim who would surely do the things that red-blooded, All-American girls would leave you for even suggesting.  And when they thought back on that trip (which they never did) there was only that one day, and then the beginning of a night where the girls came in with non-standard liquor and then... nothing.  Nothing until the plane trip back three days later.

This is what Illuminati mercs know:  a great blank, and somewhere deep in the dreaming meat a code phrase that turns them on like sunsets and long walks on the beach.

As our heroine draws one foot back in the Eight-Ways pattern—said to connect the lower chakras to the nearest available ley line—and swirls her hands in what translates loosely as “The Rending of the Sensitive Bits” the code phrase is revealed:  the words

stretched across her braless, C-cup tits in a curvy, 1970s font.

Everyone sees it, it’s in everyone’s head, but those who’ve seen it before pivot and put bullets into the brains of those who haven’t.  Half the cops drop, the other half holster their guns and charge the center, knowing full well that while they have to take their quarry alive most of them won’t survive the experience.  The cops hurdle their cars, sliding across hoods and trunks, or getting one foot in an open window and vaulting over the flashing roof, converging as our heroine does things that red-blooded, All-American girls would leave you for even suggesting, like bursting a man into ribbons of hot meat with a lightning bolt.  A thing where the sight is only rivaled by the smell.

It’s a furious thing, the stopping of hearts with a breath, the inversion of eyes and brains, bones being made to go into briefly surprising places, but really it’s that smell—the smell of boiled blood and ruptured guts, hot half-shit heavy with stomach acid—

Okay, okay, waitaminit—STOP!

Let’s take a break before we remember that the awful thing we’re bending toward here is only held in abeyance by not thinking about it, which you’re doing RIGHT NOW.

So—let’s go on a picnic:

The sky above the park was the color of an ironic lowbrow sofa-sized painting.  Searing gold just above the trees, with orange shading into the pink undersides of clouds, then various blues swatching ever darker into the utter black of the zenith.  It had been such a wonderful day, this picnic—and goddammit if we didn’t just miss it, coming in all late like this.  It’s almost over, and by over I mean OVER, so we better suck up as much of what’s left as we can.

Our hero sits splay-legged on a checkerboard blanket, propped up on his elbows; our heroine is slotted neatly into the V, leaning back against his chest, her hands absentmindedly massaging his shins.  No picnic is complete without ants, so she rubs a couple off of one perfectly bare foot with the other, flashing her chipped rainbow toenails.

The kids finish their Kool-Aid and lope off after a distant dog that’s scribing golden beelines back and forth across the sward for a tennis ball.  She follows them with eyes and ears as they recede on ribbons of laughter, then flops her head back onto his shoulder and marvels at his profile against the setting sun.

“We should get a puppy.”

He reaches up and curls the hair behind her ear, surreptitiously inhaling her scent.  Her warmth, with a hint of perspiration, suffuses him from crotch to neck.

“Did you hear me?”

“Mmmm,” he says.

“So what do you think?  I mean, look at them—”

Distantly, the tiny shapes gambol, streak, and roll in chirps of mirth.

“—so much light and love.”

He closes his eyes and shakes his head slowly.  “Because we don’t have enough.”

She slaps his leg.  “That’s not what I meant!”

“You’re right,” he says, “we got it all so right.  Why not add more?”  He pauses.  “Besides, it’s been a while since anyone shit on the rug.”

The rejoinder devolves into play fighting, tickling, rolling, laughing.  They end face-to-face, panting.  He gazes down at her, lit from within, a stray lock of hair crossed between her eyes to the corner of her smile.  He feels something suddenly urgent rise unbidden in him.

“Promise me—” he says.

“Anything,” she breathes.

“Promise me if anything... happens... you’ll find someone else.”

Her face crinkles.  “What?”

“You should have someone,” he says very seriously, “you should always have someone.  Promise me.”

“Well, that went dark,” she says.

“It’s how we know there’s light and love.  Promise me.”

“Nothing’s going to happen,” she says, and moves to kiss him.

He pulls back, locks eyes with her.  “Something always happens.”  And then he kisses her, hard and deep, her redolence suffusing every empty space in him with her essence until he knows without thought that he would crush an ape’s skull to eat her pussy again.

Above them, sky writhing—the clouds twisting into knots of silent words louder than your soul—and below come the ants the size of a wizard’s hourglass, which she stomps, though the chitin lacerates her rainbow feet, as the kids and the corpse-sniffing dog race after a severed hand—

The ayahuasca in the Kool-Aid was starting to hit and the kids were about to meet the lizards that lived in their bones.

I’m sorry, but that’s the end of the nice stuff—we’ve only got a couple pages left, like that gutless sensation at the top of a rollercoaster—and we all know what happens at the bottom.  Some dude is down there pressing his neck against the track.

And here... we... go:

When the bags come off they’re taped to folding chairs in a too-small room somewhere underground, pipes overhead and a drain in the floor, rusted squares where the heavy machinery was removed.  A cheap tripod with a video camera—who has video cameras anymore?—its oversized doll’s eye trained on them expectantly.  Too many men in the room, some of them with obviously nothing to do, all dressed head-to-toe in mismatched black wannabe tactical gear, like hasty ninjas.  They confer softly via hand signs and throat mics.

Our heroine taps an experimental foot, feeling for that battery lick of a ley line—but they had her in closed-toed stilettos, which meant

1) These assholes knew what they’re doing, and

2) We’re all fucked.

Our hero comes around, hair matted with blood, face puffy with missing teeth.  He turns the whole mess toward her in a parody of a wan smile.  “I guess it’s too late for that puppy,” he burbles.

“It’s never too late for puppies,” she says, not sure she means it.

The red light on the camera winks, signaling self-consciousness, and there’s a man with a Qur’an, scribbling notes on the pages and tearing them off, handing them to a subordinate who reads the question with a propaganda snarl.  This goes on for a confusing amount of time, seemingly pointless.

And now there’s only one page left—I did all I could, I warned you, I asked you to breathe, to think of kittens, to go on a goddamn picnic—but you kept pushing it, thinking the worst things, broadcasting your fear at everyone around you, forgetting that as social animals we are the original internet, texting each other unconsciously and shitting all over each other’s face—book pages everywhere we go.  And now there’s no stopping it, the situation has amassed a gravity all its own and we’ve danced at the event horizon too long.

There’s a final statement, shouted, punctuated by fists in the air and the man who knows how to hold a knife pulls our hero’s chin back—

—and we wonder at that last good moment before the ayahuasca hit, before the trigger pull, before the wheels locked and screamed on wet asphalt, before an abstract notion like “cancer” took the only irreplaceable thing, when something that can’t be seen or stabbed came out of nowhere and irrevocably kinked the flow of your life.

We’re going to skip the part where everyone is crying—well, not everyone, but you get the point.

He held it blade away, pinprick tip at the side of the neck where it would plunge through the soft tissue just in front of the spine and out the other side, then extend forward to tear all the plumbing out in one go—none of that amateur-hour sawing bullshit that might work for the drama of the stage but is needlessly frustrating for everyone involved in real life.

She wants to scream that she loves him, she wants to scream them all dead, but she can’t because I make her say something else, something that would look cool in a comic book word balloon.

He strains against the hand on his chin, the point at his neck harder than Satan’s Job-bet boner, and through clenched and broken teeth he replies:

“Say it in French, baby.”

And you’re thinking to yourself, What the fuck does that have to do with anything?  But there was a small detail I dropped way back in the third paragraph like a shotgun shell rolled under a car seat in the first act of a cheap thriller, a fact that you’ve no doubt completely forgotten:


from a dead mouth answering the call from beyond that dark horizon, and when she speaks it the machinery beneath the world sits up and listens.

So she repeats herself:

And whatever it is that lies coiled inside of dice unfurls as the blade slips in—

5. Play video.

6. Enjoy pie.

1 comment:

Chris Tannhauser said...

A writer stands in a well-trodden field, blasting away at the broad side of a barn with a shotgun—large targets hit in historically expected places, obvious and boring.

But that’s not what this is about, this deluge of absurdity and near-constant head fakes. And though the core of it can be found in greeting cards (as are all essential human Truths), you didn’t buy it with money—you bought in with engagement. Complicity.

This piece was originally conceived and presented as a live performance. Audience members were told ahead of time to bring a knife. “Steak or bodice dagger?” was a common question. “Bring your favorite,” was the reply, and so personal choice and fetish were the names of the two jaws of the unsprung bear trap. On the night of, anticipation was palpable. Everyone showed off their favorite knife, traded, handled and hefted with nodding appreciation for the immediate sensation of power in the fist, a mythic rush, completely divorced from the million-year reality of what points and edges do to living flesh.

I handed out the cards. The mood dimmed.

Then the video lit, paused on the same image as the cards.

I read the title of the piece aloud and the conviviality of 20 seconds ago was turned irrevocably inside out. Real anxiety began to build...

Ratchet and release, ratchet and release. A parade of nonsense, confusing jump cuts, the magician’s trick of making you forget which card you picked. Then the hard stuff, the last page drops, I bid them to cut open their cards with their favorite knife, to lacerate the smiley face as the video begins to play with the low animal growl—

—of Warrant’s music video for “Cherry Pie”.

A catharsis of confused feelings—truth, lies, the absurd and too-close reality—as we engage in the ancient act of community by sharing something as ridiculous as a cherry pie, a messy flesh-and-blood dessert, ugly and delicious.

The originating template for the work was The Monster at the End of This Book (Starring Lovable, Furry Old Grover) by Jon Stone and Michael Smollin, a children’s book that does a beautiful job of creating real anxiety—leavened with a cartoonish presentation—in kids, with a “surprise” ending that comes as a great relief. But how to do this for adults? What is something that is as real to adults as monsters are to children, something horrible, yet held at a remove, never actually experienced—but understood to be “out there”—and deep down you hope is just a hoax? A modern bogeyman, one most everyone has assiduously avoided, and those who have seen it do not wish to see again: when you’ve seen one beheading video, you really have seen them all.

Is it effective? The two times I’ve performed the piece it’s achieved its purpose—taking people where they’ve never been before. Does it work as an unchaperoned, self-guided multimedia experience? Reports vary. Level of engagement is important, but even then for every willing participant who finds it amusing and awful there are ten who find it just plain awful. I’m good with that, having done what I set out to do: to make something that didn’t exist in the world, something only I could create. And since I write for an audience of one—“Always keep your audience in mind,” the editors say, and I always do—I’m perfectly happy with how it turned out.

I do hope it worked for you, on some level, to alter the flow of the everyday—the way strippers need crank in order to keep on lap dancin’—and if it didn’t, well, there’s always next time.

Thank you for reading.