:: Article

Psycho Femmes II

By Nicholas Rombes.

The following text comes from Rombes’s recently completed novel, Psycho Femmes II

The plane came in low after beginning its descent over Chicago, slingshotting past Detroit, banking hard left, into the cool westerly headwinds, crossing easterly over parts of Ontario and then Grosse Ile, in the Detroit River, before hitting the tarmac with a bump and a slight twist that suggested how easy it would be for everything to go terribly wrong. I’d been sent to Detroit on assignment–the ruse of an assignment–to do archival research and provide annotations—to rehabilitate, basically—a revolutionary novel from the third era, Rhizome. A too-clever title, I thought. The regime had collapsed fifteen years ago, and then re-asserted itself more mildly, on the surface at least, and my job was to return to the discredited novel and dust it off, re-package it, a novel which had meant so much to those who opposed the regime, so that it could be used as a lure to bring the remaining insurgents out of the shadows and back into the light. It was part of a false reconciliation project—National Memory.

I was assigned to an ugly, square, bunker-like building on a beautiful campus in northwest Detroit, a flowering campus in the summer, when the roses and wisteria and honeysuckle come out and the groundskeepers stand aside and just let them grow amok for all their beauty. If you enter the campus from the west side my building is the first one you see, not far from the sandstone clock tower, and in fact during that first month its enormous shadow fell across and into the building, through its windows, through my office window in fact. The tower, its shadow, is the only beautiful thing about my office, my building.

The directive that has sent me here is deceivingly simple and direct: to insinuate myself within a cell of insurgents in Detroit and to report my findings back to the Commander. (She insisted on that absurd nomenclature. “The Commander,” whose cement, torture-chamber-like office suggested the terror of a purely administrated mind. Whose directive to me was delivered in person and with the stern familiarity of some ancient ritual, as if sliding a pale envelope across the polished surface of a steel desk was a gesture akin to enacting the Eucharist.) But how? By what means? With only the thinnest of cover stories—to work on the original manuscript of Rhizome, housed here in Detroit in the university’s archives—I was tasked with achieving something far greater.

I was picked up late one night at the metro airport in Romulus after a ten-hour flight by an emissary of the institution, a man with extremely large hands and knuckles and yet with the softest of voices, as he spoke to me about the city’s peculiar history. He wore a black or navy blue chauffeur’s cap with a polished brim. He drove like he was above the law, his frame filling the front seat, with a recklessness that approached something more like a parody of driving.

Had the Commander sent him, or was I on my own now?

The chauffeur’s eyes stared at me in the rear view mirror as if in anticipation of my reaction but I played it cool, and didn’t even bother to fasten my seatbelt and even though for a sizeable amount of time we were on the freeway he spoke as if we were travelling through the cramped dark back alleys and lost neighborhoods of the city, gesturing and grunting. I met his cold eyes and nodded occasionally, hoping that was enough. The dome light flickered weakly whenever we hit a bump. We pulled over at a gas station, everything bathed in pink neon. There was a bat or something flitting about in an epileptic fit of flying beneath one of the enormous purple overhangs. Inside the gas station, behind the glass, a hooded figure appeared to be swaying behind the counter. I got out to stretch while Lars (for that it what his name badge read) went in to pay for the gas.

The night air was strong and grassy and I could imagine an enormous green swamp behind the gas station, the mist rising off it, deceiving in its beauty but deadly, the kind of place where bodies disappear. I could also imagine that further yet around back of the gas station there was a metal door, a second door, an unofficial door not used by employees but reserved for someone special. In fact, upon the door was spray-painted, in choppy letters, THE ONE WHO COMES IN THE NIGHT. There was, as usual, the soft, high whining of drones, obscured in the night sky.

The snap of the gas handle startled me to my senses, and we were back in the car, which seemed to smell of lemons now, and soon beyond the freeways laid out like asphalted-over riverbeds Detroit in its dark magnificence loomed in the distance and Lars was very quiet and softer-eyed as if approaching a cathedral or a city of cathedrals and soon we were at the small hotel across the street from the campus where I was summoned by the portly night attendant directly to my room (don’t bother, Lars will take care of your paperwork at the desk) and then I was undressing and then I was on the soft bed, exhausted, my head so full of coming sleep that I barely noticed, or noticed and didn’t care, that in the open windowsill in the dark there sat an animal that could either have been a cat or raccoon or a fox and that its orange were eyes watching me.

My campus office was a hell hole. Dead mice don’t bother me. Nor do living ones, scurrying around. They have their rights. But half-dead ones–the ones scattered across the floor of my office–those are the ones I wish didn’t exist, the ones that bring out the hatred and the guilt, and to have so many of them there squirming at my feet, as if in some sort of performance or protest, dying like that. It was just too much and I asked Carson, the man—some sort of executive secretary or at least secretary—who had escorted me to the office to please dispose of or otherwise make disappear these dying mice and to clean and disinfect thoroughly every inch of that office and I also demanded (raising my voice now and seizing an opportunity based on an initial visual scan of the office) a coffee maker and a solid box fan. Poor Carson (who had some sort of back or neck condition that made him unable to turn his head and so he swivelled his entire body toward me, and then away, and then back, as if in confusion or searching for some non-existent help) feeling his pockets for a pen or paper to write down my demands, and me bringing them on stronger in light of his apparent weakness, almost frothing and flailing now as I pointed to the shoddy window seals, the uneven desk, the dented olive green metal filing cabinet, the bulky phone that appeared at least a decade out of date.

I left my office (and poor broken-backed Carson) for the streets of Detroit. The wires all pulled out of the tilting street lamps. The abandoned and disbanded houses tagged 000 in black spray paint, a code that would take me weeks to break. The blown apart shuttle stops. The red bricks glistening through the thin, pocked asphalt. The looming, repurposed antenna towers. The freshly painted trees and grass in the boulevard islands. The dated, rusted, over-sized surveillance cameras tenuously attached to splintered telephone poles. The under-pixelated sign for a transmeter repair shop. The heaped, rusted garbage truck left in decay like the carcass of some prehistoric beast. I followed my instincts into a place called Fletcher’s. The door was ajar. Heavy gray steel, propped open with a chipped cinder block. It was spring, after all. There was a long wooden bar to my left, a black banner with the usual symbols hanging over it, a very tall bartender in the shadows with a bruised eye or an eye-patch, and some tables. Only now can I say that gravity felt a little different there, a little weaker and you could feel this immediately and see it in the way the cigarette smoke curled up high near the tin ceiling, smoke from a lone cigarette in an ashtray at an empty table at the back.

I was reminded of an incident from several years ago when, on a different assignment, I’d come across a downed drone in a field, one of its wings sheared off and its guts torn open. I was surprised to find an actual cockpit whose mud-smeared dome had been crushed, and I wondered if it existed for sheerly nostalgic purposes, or perhaps as an unintentional design element, because of course planes had to have cockpits, even if there was no living being to sit inside. The cockpit was as fake looking as drone itself, and of course the real cockpit, were all the controls were, was miles away, if it existed a all, for at that point it was rumored that regime’s drones had become completely untethered from the actions of humans. The intentions of the drone’s designers and makers had been built into the drones themselves, which had, it was suggested, achieved a sort of self-understanding that the theorists among us wrote about in terms of metastrategic knowledge. But as I moved my hand across its smooth outer casing all that theory faded away and I was left a feeling of deep attachment to the object before me. The injured drone was a living thing, fallen from the sky. I had come across it accidentally and, in an act of mercy, I permanently disabled it, cutting its veiny wires and crushing its data crystals.

I took a seat at the bar and waited as the bartender, his back to me, polished a glass. The place was disguised cleverly, but with subtle errors that suggested a deeper understanding of how people like me ferreted out places like this. The cult flag, for instance, above the bar, indicated an affinity for one of the regime’s unofficial radical working groups whose unsanctioned methods were broadcast, on occasion, on graphic broadsides. And yet the flag’s silver emblems were slightly underproportioned. A perfect flag was as much of a tell as an imperfect flag, and it was my job to read such signals correctly, to parse through the fine lines of careful miscommunication. When the giant bartender finally turned to me I’d already learned something: that he hadn’t yet formed a judgment about me. His broad face was damaged as many faces had been damaged years ago, burned and then healed in that way that suggested damp wax paper.

“Mitchum’s a bum, am I right?” he said, arms folded.

I’d been prepared for this.

“He can’t hit for hitting,” I said, “that’s for sure.”

“But then again he’s better than Sinclair.”

“I’m not so sure. Sinclair had an eye.”

“For girls.”

We laughed, and I understood that my time here would not be easy.

I imagined the knife fight to come. The awkward, glinting steel and my feeling that, in the hands of the giant, my own knife was petty, an elementary, a school-boy’s version of a weapon, honed not from reality but from the romance of imagination. The initial thrusts, seemingly meaningless but portending of the outcome. The ridiculous knife-fight stances, half-hunched, primitive, as if the prerequisite to death was the final humiliation of evolutionary postures. And then–without warning–the tipped puncture of flesh, the pin-tip of blood. A slight muscle torn. The evolutionary body torn down in one second. Stances resumed. The stink of alarmist body odor. I reposition my geometrics, the en-garde position from college fencing, the melodramatics of gentlemanly belligerence. The lower neck, the far-right shoulder muscle, the groin area. The blood splatters, then trickles, then splatters. The giant bartender lunges, foolishly. I dodge with ease. I twirl and spike, his patellar tendon slashed, enough to bend his knee. We fall together, and come to be. The reasons for our blood are hard to see. I slash again, and again. The pain is real, and right in front of me. A ruined rib, a ruined toe. The blood an afterthrow. The stink of shit and piss and love. The blood.

Back at the bar: the first drink came, and then the second. The room took on a dull orange glow from the setting sun. The feeling of crawling through an oil painting. A warm breeze blew in some leaves and a paper cup through the propped open door. The cigarette on the far back table had long ago burned itself out. The bartender polished glasses, and then disappeared, and then returned to polish more glasses. A distant phone rang. I thought again of the dying drone.

I thought of the Commander, too, and her short, cropped, licorice black hair and what she had promised me if my assignment in Detroit proved successful. And what I had promised her.

Nicholas Rombes


Nicholas Rombes is the author of the novel The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing (Two Dollar Radio), Ramones (from Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series), and Cinema in the Digital Age (Columbia).

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, December 6th, 2017.