:: Article

The Dregs (Excerpt)

By Chris Kelso.

This is an extract from the Ritual America section of The Dregs Trilogy (Black Shuck Books, 2020). The images below are by Shane Swank.

Drugs keep the spiders at bay. In Asia, they understand what it’s like to have a soul infested with spiders: in most parts of Indonesia they’ll fry magic mushrooms into your omelettes and you can get a ‘happy special pizza’ in Siem Reap for practically nothing. There’s always a Xanax in your beer. Always a happy street vendor ready to take part in a closed-curtain exchange with a soul-weary tourist. It’s a courtesy as well as a currency over here. At my grandmother’s order, I’ve been stuck in a perpetual state of neurosurgical exorcism since I was a kid. I’ve fought against spiritual eviction for the longest time.

I had an encounter with the Carson-Bastard in Guangdong, back in my whoring days, when money was easy to come by and my bloodstream was constantly suffused with concentrated doses of Canton heroin — my buddy ‘Lu-the-Chew’ synthesised Canton heroin and it became famous citywide for delivering a deep, warm, intestine-hugging high that made your eyeballs spool to the back of their sockets and left you dehydrated and delusional. Of course, I got mark-down on account of my long, fat dick that looked like a Lamb-Hass avocado, and it helped that my buddy Lu was a sucker for a Western face too.

“Alfie, you’re good-looking enough to make the fish drown and the geese fall from the sky”. Good times.

The Carson-Bastard came to my rented apartment in Foshan and he knew to pay with a sandwich baggie of opium — it wasn’t Lu’s pharmaceutical-grade merchandise, but I was jonesing something fierce — and he knocked in a series of three knuckle-wraps to the beat of ‘We Will Rock You’ by Queen: I remember he hit a certain part of the stile for the first two ‘stomps’ then a different part for the ‘clap’.

*stomp, stomp, clap* *stomp, stomp, clap*

That’s what it sounded like to me anyway. Pretty deliberate.

I was into calisthenics back then and was in the middle of a pistol squat when the door went. I answered singing ‘You got mud on yo’ face. You big disgrace, kickin’ your can all over the place, singin…’ under my breath and there was the Carson-Bastard, just standing there, hard as a towel rack. I noticed he was white too, saw the clear bag of drugs, and let him in. At first I thought he might’ve been a dumb slum-tourist. But he was just a scruffy sonofabitch — an average-looking hillbilly in a tattered flannel shirt and pre-shrunk, sandpapered jeans. He forwarded the heroin. I thanked him and went instantly to prepare it.

“So where you from?” — I asked, knowing he was a southerner before a single syllable fell out of his mouth. He didn’t answer, just shuffled on the spot, all edgy and nervous. I decided to wait to take my drugs. The guy seemed to need reassurance and I initially felt a little sorry for him. He reminded me of a guy called Benny who worked in the one of Lu’s drugstores in the sprawl as a soda-jerk — quiet and jittery but prone to explosive fits of violence when cornered into an unfamiliar setting. I think it’s an autistic thing. Kid gloves, I assumed. I offered the Bastard a drink and he said he’d take a Blue Ribbon. All I had was a six-pack of Reeb. He took a can and glugged it down while I teased out the femoral vein in my groin.

“You want a hit to relax you? I’ll put it on your tab.” — I offered.

“I only take heroin in the ass.”

Fine, I thought, that’s fine.

So I dissolved the drugs into an oral syringe while he dropped his jeans and started lubing up his asshole with spit. The Carson-Bastard got on all fours, in a kind of Aztec push-up stance, and, to be honest, I was just relieved he was clean down there.

“Here it comes.”

And I inserted the dropper before carefully descending the plunger as if I were administering some anal antidote for Dengue Fever. He had a tattoo of a skull on his rear haunch that stared right through me. I watched the lining of his rectum change colour, from burnt umber to a field-drab-desert-sand colour. I watched his balls retract and he moaned a great moan of pleasure-relief. He arched his back and flexed his toes until the ankle cracked. His fingers clacked on the parquet flooring to what I thought was the beat of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstitious’, but upon reflection might’ve been Slayer’s ‘Raining Blood’. This only heightened my desire to try out his brand and method. The asshole suddenly became the stream in the peach orchard that leads to paradise. I wanted the drug to flow through me and manifest itself in musical tics. I slid my jogging bottoms down over my knees and got on all fours on the couch. The Carson-Bastard was flopped on the floor now, pawing at the air. His dick was out and still hard and, judging from his boner, I figured he might’ve laced the heroin with Viagra — it was a good size too, a little thin and curved like an overripe banana, but nice enough; the shaft was wormy with veins and he clutched it aggressively in an immense, hairy hand.

I started thinking this wouldn’t be such a hassle after all.

“Would you mind?” — I asked him, hoping he’d return the gesture out of courtesy.

“Sure, I guess.” — He was less anxious now. I waited patiently with my back to him, ass presented high in the air, expecting the warm numbness to sweep its way up my abdomen and hit any minute. That’s when I felt the serrated knife edge graze the skin of my ball sack. Before I know it my head’s being yanked back hard and the Carson-Bastard has a fistful of my hair in his clutch.

“Don’t move.”

I tell him I wasn’t going to fucking move. He drags one of the knife-teeth along my sack and I feel it tear the skin ever so slightly. A dribble of warm blood trickles down my inner thigh.

“Got any CD’s?” — He asked.

I could barely get the words out of my throat. The blood ran to my knee and split off in red veins down over my shin.

“Got any fuckin CD’s” — He asked again, tugging my hair until the roots screamed.

“Over in the corner, next to the TV!”

He pulled me upright by the scalp and led me to the TV.

“Got any ‘Spengler’s Eulogy’? I haven’t heard the ‘sound’ in so long, it’s making me crazy.”

“No, I don’t think so man…”

“Well find me some sound collages!”

He threw me to the floor and I landed on my knees. A pool of blood formed on the floor. My dick wibbled around between my legs, half recoiled in fear. I had no idea what ‘sound collages’ were meant to be.

“Are they a band? ‘Sound collage’…a band?” — That’s how ignorant I was back then.

“You playin’ funny you fag? It’s the ‘sound’, you know the ‘sound’? I know your type, you’re slicker than owl shit.”

I could only whimper apologetically and suddenly the serrated knife edge slid beneath the hummock of my Adam’s apple.

“Please…please don’t kill me.” — I begged.

“Please don’t kill you?”

“Please…”

“I could kill you if I wanted. It’d be so fucking easy, so fucking easy. My family are all killers and rapists. That shit runs through my veins.” — To illustrate, he rolled up his sleeves and, with two fingers, patted his left forearm until a thick vessel surfaced. He mouthed a repeat of ‘through my veins’.”

“So, what do you want?”

“What’s that? What do I want?” — His voice broke to a squeal on the word ‘want’.

Then he stopped, retracted the blade and considered my question.

“What do I want? Good question” — the aggression had vanished and he slipped into a stage-whisper.

“Alfie, what do I want?”

How did he know my name? Maybe I came recommended. Maybe he was on a second wind from the heroin. It came in waves you see. The Carson-Bastard sat with his back to the couch. The knife had fallen by his side and he had a lazy grip over the handle. The window behind me led onto a retractable fire escape. I knew I had half a chance of escaping, as long as I timed the jump to the stairwell properly. I inched towards the window and the Carson-Bastard just stared sleepily into space repeating my question “what do I want?”

“They say you can hide from Blackcap if you burn all yours dreams. Dreams are like tracking devices. He can follow you. Why would you ever want to outrun him anyway?”

It was then that I saw it — the Carson-nose, the jutted jaw, those spherical fish eyes. There was never a family face so cosmically…inhuman. I got a feeling in my chest like a thousand spiders were scurrying about, rattling their pincers off the underside of my breast plate, twanging my arteries, replacing sinew with silk. I knew exactly which family he came from. The face we all used to fear as children. The scary spiders were back.

Back in Amber Acre, during another life, the Carsons were a reviled bunch. It seemed that the mean genes never thought twice about skipping a generation; they were all considered as detestable as each other. My old childhood friend William Bentley and I, we got the eldest son Jed, Beau’s brother, a two-year stretch, this is before they sent him away for killing an entire family.

You see, when Billy and I turned twelve we started experimenting a lot. We wound up taking pictures of roadkill, squirrels flattened to a tack at the side of the highway, dogs halved by long-haul behemoths — that sort of thing. Then we graduated to pictures of human bodies. We looked at Billy’s foster-dad’s old collection which he kept in a shoebox under his bed.

Our favourites were old Vietnam pictures:

A father offering the limp body of his child to a squad of apathetic South Vietnamese Rangers. Billy thought the picture was great because it showed how unfeeling the Kong was, even to each other. It was something he admired.

Children who’d been horribly burned from aerial napalm attacks.

There was one where the corpse of a U.S. paratrooper, killed in action in the jungle near the Cambodian border, was being lifted by an evacuation helicopter and he looked like an angel ascending to heaven.

The self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức.

The famous murder of a Vietcong operative, Nguyen Van Lemby, by the Saigon Police Chief. His foster dad had this image blown up and put above the mantelpiece in our living room.

It’s no overstatement to say that we were both fascinated by corpses. I called this our ‘rot phase’. It lasted about six months and Billy and I got into some powerful mischief trying to obtain taboo photographs. I fantasised about killing my hateful grandmother and shitting on her withered old corpse. There’s something about looking at a dead-eyed shell void of life that makes you agonisingly aware of your own testicles and the scurrying tadpoles of life which infest them. The morbid fascination grew as our dicks grew. Billy and I would dress up at Halloween and scare little girls and made them physically piss themselves. Just for the thrill. Just for the fuck of it.

Eventually we started experimenting with nudity. It was my idea at first, I wanted to take pictures of Billy and he was more than willing to pose for the camera. We’d go to his room and Billy would get naked and spread out on his bed like a cat stretching out under the warm sun. I’d tell him to get on his front, part his ass wide and snap him with one of those Nikon instant cameras. Billy did this coy but provocative face when he looked into my lens, like he was proud to be part of such a deviant experiment. If he wasn’t such a bisexual asshole I could’ve fallen for him. We took turns, although Billy was always a better model than he was photographer and I was always better behind the lens than I ever was in front of it. I was always the arty one, the one who loved music, who married art and sex and lifestyle. Billy was just a good-looking wannabe. We kept the evidence in a box and made little matted photo albums which interspersed the Vietnam War pictures with our own private shoots. When you flicked through really fast, and you saw a picture of a hatchet team paratrooper holding the severed head of a Viet Cong guerrilla change suddenly to Billy’s pink little ass, the two sets of photographs combined in a surprisingly effective collage of violence and sex. We shared the book often, using it as masturbation material.

One day, Billy and I were feeling particularly proud of our collection and decided to take the album to school. There were a few kids, Mike Gershwin, Tommy Fritz in particular, who were majorly into video nasties and we figured those guys would really appreciate our ‘art’ — and we were right. Tommy Fritz asked to take the album home and Billy and I reluctantly agreed. The only factor we didn’t consider was that Tommy Fritz hung around with Beau Carson, little brother to Jed. We were all scared of Jed, we were scared of all the Carsons, but Jed was a maniac. If he saw pictures of two local kids posing nude for each other he’d string us naked from the nearest lamp post. Billy was worried about it, I was smoking a lot of dope at the time and had a more relaxed attitude. I don’t think I fully understood that Jed Carson would literally try to kill us if he got hold of the album.

The next day Tommy came into school pale as a sheet. I knew straight away that the album had fallen into the hands of a Carson.

“It was Beau. He stole the book from my room last night and…”

“Jed hasn’t seen it…?” — Billy mewled.

Tommy’s features seemed to recede into his face, as if he were sinking into himself. He nodded.

“He’s got it…”

So there it was. Jed had seen the pictures. I remember, after we got the bad news, Billy punched Tommy in the arm really hard and it made a crack. I think he broke Tommy Fritz’s arm.

The rest of the day Billy and I were like double nought spies or ninjas, slinking around the school grounds, skipping class, trying our best to avoid a Carson face. We were two fish trapped in a dry wheel track. The only confrontation came later that night. I was walking down Amber Avenue and saw a police car parked outside Jed and Beau’s family shack. Two burly officers came pushing out of the house with Jed handcuffed and writhing between them. He looked up and saw me.

“They were his! That little shit! He took those pictures!”

The cops bundled Jed into the back of the car and tore off down the boulevard. Billy and I were taken down to the station and a cop spoke to us like were poor little retarded kids. I knew we could get off with this thing if we played it naïve. The cop asked us if Jed touched us in our underwear area, how we met him, why he was in our house in the first place. At first Billy tried to come clean, he almost dropped us both in the deep shit! I spoke over him though. Billy didn’t like being censored but he conceded defeat and kept his mouth shut, offering a few corroborating nods. I told the cop that Jed walked us home one night after school and invited himself into the house while Billy’s foster-dad was on night shift. Jed told us he’d hurt us if we didn’t strip off and pose for him. I also mentioned that Jed took a bunch of old photographs from the shoe box and masturbated to them in front of us. I started crying and the cop bought into it. Billy started crying too, but his tears were real and he was crying for a completely different reason. We were only called in that one time.

People treated Billy and I like heroes all summer. Even grandma eased off a little, although she looked at me as if I were a ruined temple or something. It was great, but I would’ve killed to get our photo album back. Still, I figured it’d been seized as evidence and filed away in a drawer somewhere. Being treated like heroes didn’t last long, not after what we did to Florence Coffee that one Halloween. I still remember putting her to rest, it was that time when everyone wanted to look and dress like Chloë Sevigny. In my mind this justified what we did to her. Billy lost his shit when we spotted an affectless skater-kid wearing a tight T and denim cut-offs record the whole thing on his shitty camcorder. I’m still not sure if he was a real skater kid or just dressed up douchy for Halloween. We got away with it. No one came looking for us. Billy was convinced people knew but the adults were too busy reprimanding the Carsons to notice. He became obsessed with her and pretty soon he wouldn’t look twice at me. He was in love with this little fucking girl, this muse for Prada. I’ve never been so disgusted with someone before. I guess things that are intimate for one person can be morbid curiosity for another.

I had nightmares about running naked through Amber Acre woods, of Jed hunting me down and killing me. I felt possessed by him. Is that what guilt feels like? He plagued my dreams until I was 14 years old. The day before he got out I was so terrified I fled Amber Acre, fled my grandma, and hooked up with a guy in Kentucky who was looking for escorts and male models. I was already an outcast in the community and there was no reason for me to stay. What happened to Flo gave me just the kick up the ass I needed. It wasn’t long before a lot of opportunities to get out of the country came my way. I’ve been in France, Italy, Russia, Indonesia, Cambodia and Hong Kong. In China Lu has kept me connected. It was all going so well…

Billy and I inevitably lost touch. I’d heard he did odd-jobs and worked as a part-time telephone lineman. Through other people I know he’s since been a chauffeur in LA, a short-order cook in San Francisco and a sculptor in West Beach. It seems we were both running from the same thing but in opposite directions. News of Jed killing that family became international news and I’d been tempted to call Billy up but last I heard he killed himself, plummeted from a motel in Winnipeg. Oh well, that’s how it goes, I guess. The Coffee family had been eradicated. It felt like any chance of being caught for Florence’s murder had completely disappeared. The skater kids recording never popped up either. I don’t even think about it these days.

The Carson-Bastard was still sitting against the couch mumbling to himself. I knew he was here to confront me about what I did to his daddy, maybe he was here to kill me. I left Jed carrying the black bowl all those years ago. He must hold a powerful grudge. Now here was this demon from my past, lying naked in my apartment — probably a product of some sordid conjugal visit Jed had with a three-dollar hooker, right? I became convinced that this bastard had been infatuated by his father’s wrongful arrest and compelled to hunt me down across entire continents. I had to ask…

“Do you know Jed Carson?”

He looked up, as if the name had shaken him from his drug daze. He looked at me, as if his eyes were made from tears.

“I haven’t heard that name out loud in the longest time.”

“He was your father?”

“You can tell?”

I nodded to confirm. He seemed calmer.

“I’m looking for a girl in this city.”

“There are a lot of girls in this city.”

“This girl is in every city. The ‘sound’ is her cry for help.”

“She gets around.”

“Kinda.”

“What does this girl look like?”

“Brown hair, radiant soul, eyes that penetrate the night.”

“She doesn’t sound familiar.”

“If you saw her, you’d know her. Everyone knows her. You definitely know her.”

“Listen, do you need me to call someone?”

“No.”

“You look like you could use a friendly face and a decent meal. I reckon I got neither. I rent this place from a customer who checks in regularly, so you can’t stay here, but I know some people who run squats in Guangzhou. I can give them a call…?”

“I came here for her. The co-ordinates, they led me right to your door.”

“Did someone send you?”

“Someone did, yes.”

“Who?”

“You can only see him when you dream. If you listen to the ‘sound’ you can hear him making love to Florence.”

We stopped talking, as if to listen for a noise emerging from the thick silence. Florence Coffee. Florence-fucking-Coffee. He looked at me as if he knew everything. I wanted to deny it. My choked protests were as mute as the moon, and just as profound.

“I think it’s terrible. It’s not right.”

“What isn’t?” I asked.

“That my father took credit for your art.”

“What art?”

“I wanted to make sure you got credit while I was here. I want you to know that I know. He knows.”

“Knows what?”

“The album. I never felt right about such an important artefact evading its true creator. The Anthill Kid Review, the final section. It’s your album of photographs.”

“Our photography is in a magazine?”

“I guess this must be sort of like a belated submission acceptance…”

Everything changed from that point onward. If the ‘sound’ ever got mainstream radio play it would probably change everyone’s conscious perception of music, that’s what the Carson-Bastard told me (he’s also the one who suggest I call him ‘The Carson-Bastard’). Only a minority could sit in their car and ignore it, or scoff at it for having no melody, because its savage honesty forces the listener to look upon themselves with savage honesty. It’s really not about enjoyment. Billy could never understand this. There’s nothing beneath his surface.

He burnt his dreams like a pussy.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris Kelso is is a British Fantasy Award-nominated writer, illustrator, and anthologist from Scotland.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 27th, 2020.