Interest had started to pick up after they announced. Still not enough, but a fresh kind that dealt a hotline of cultural credit. Probably a year’s worth if presales kept steady. Sure, artists in the past had created personas; Bowie and the like. Dylan had changed his name at the courthouse, but this was almost new. In a rare moment of band democracy, all four guys decided to disappear.
Their singer suggested the idea at a practice the previous year. It wormed its way around their heads throughout the election season, nesting as a relief-fantasy due to the subsequent frustration and fatigue. After all, the unthinkable had happened: America went Country. The sleeping giant had elected a 1980s hair metal singer with a contemporary country career into the White House.
The whole shebang reeked of bread and circus. After decades of Culture War battlefield surgery, America had been cosmeticized into a state of institutional adolescence. Civic and customer service were stitched together in a huff, creating a schizoid, liturgical parabiosis. Its life-brine beautified every aristocrat’s claim to power. Their pickled hairdos dandied over a Nu punditry of lizard-hating protagonists where nothing worked, and it was somebody else’s fault. Everyone stood against everything. Deliberation was a lost art. Arguing was the new debate. People expressed themselves openly in the street like dogs.
The band knew it was bologna, but gnosis wasn’t enough. Enactment was required. America was already teeming with enough complicit, shambolic court jesters, and they needed to stand out. So they made a plan to publicly devalue society’s ultimate, socioeconomic precious. They decided to kill their own brand. All four extinguished their birth names, personal contact information, and online histories. Their past was a nickname now; an in-joke shared amongst family and friends.
They sold disappearing as radical performance art in their press release, but it wasn’t really all that innovative. Everybody halfway did it to fit in. The band just decided to make it official. They became their avatars in the eyes of the law. They re-formed as their own official tribute band of themselves. Now, they could only play covers even if the song was an original. All the licks were ripped. The authentic guys were gone, replaced by their “Real Me’s.” The only thing that remained were the project’s URLs with a few crucial changes. All profiles read something like:
The Official Cathartic Spectacle Tribute Band.
Vox & R. Guitar: Anubis Jackson Jr.
BGV & Lead Guitar: Ishtar Alamar
BGV & Bass: Glyph Tandem
Drums: Amen Break
Genre: Algorithm & Blues
Location: It City, USA
The announcement got decent coverage on the second-tier blogosphere. CATHARTIC SPECTACLE had been a lower-mid entity known throughout America’s touring circuit with more far critical acclaim than commercial success. After five years, the band felt becoming Disappearing was the only way to cash-in the former to achieve the latter. Brand-suicide was an intentional conflation of art and business enacted with class. It performed a “cool” statement that kept getting colder. Pre-sale tickets for their next “first” tour had doubled since their story broke.
The band’s metrics finally communicated something usable: story was important. CATHARTIC SPECTACLE had been a reactionary band of characters snarking against the very carnivalesque narrative they careered within. Disappearing was not that.
It was a living story birthed from the plane-mirror they’d clutched in vain for five long years. They spent half a decade screaming at their funhouse world to glimpse itself. CATHARTIC SPECTACLE required them to beg for its necessary attention – and drag around a very heavy, fourman mirror.
It did not work. So they doubled-down and became Disappearing. They were no longer characters. They were the story that gave them permission. They became the logical, living end of what CATHARTIC SPECTACLE lampooned. Disappearing was the grotesque body of theory in action, and this band pledged to live each jagged day within the dissonant horror of fantasy vomiting into reality.
It looked crazy at the pace of everyday life, but the band prefered it to the lingering anxiety of staying “on brand” all the time. It sounded noble, but there was nothing glamourous about their recent leap of faith.
Anubis worked under-the-table at a record store. Ishtar gigged as a freelance illustrator. The Break was the sole tenant and “lieutenant landlord” of a dual-zoned rehearsal space, and Glyph tended bar at a quiet little pool hall where he spent his shifts doing homework.
Disappearing ritualized exactly what their world encouraged them to do as CATHARTIC SPECTACLE: throw altruism, branding, authenticity, art, business, etc. into a blender and accidentally sell that smoothie by being “Real Me’s.” It flew like a B-movie that bordered occult ceremony. Disappearing was a frumpy mandala that contrasted so surreally against reality that Nu eyes finally clicked “here.”
The dissonance was intentional. Disappearing was their Nu spectacle, and they were being rewarded with attention for their enactment. Yet the band had been so absorbed in the frustrated enthusiasm and paperwork of their transmogrification, they’d never paused to reflect upon what kind of attention something so strange as Disappearing might attract.
Their new likes, shares, and pre-sales weren’t facilitating much contemplation either, but they were about to find out. Something was paying attention, for reasons stranger and frumpier than any band or mandala could ever imagine. Something new was paying attention. Something that liked what it liked and never shared. Some Thing was.
CHAPTER 1: WHO’S LISTENING?
Anubis stood behind the counter, fiddling with his burner phone and keeping an intermittent eye on the two customers rifling through the used section. He worked two days a week at Rube’s store, In The Rough Records. The name hinted at diamonds, but anything of actual notoriety was sold on MeBay before it ever hit a shelf.
Anubis liked Rube. He had an adamant stance on reasonable prices for new, smaller artists. “Screw retail mark-up,” he’d say, “I make my money online, new stuff’s sold in here for a dollar plus wholesale. Eff it.”
Rube also paid cash, under the table; so switchover from the “Anubis-name-change thing” hadn’t been a problem. Anubis started picking up shifts mid-disappearing, and liked it enough to stay on. Scheduling was a bit competitive because so many of Rube’s employees toured, but Anubis never showed up high and was willing to do data entry. He also ingratiated the store’s more “demanding” clientele, which pleased Rube.
Anubis set his burner down to charge as local eccentric, Rusty Husk, walked through ITRR’s beaded doorway. It was Wednesday after all, and Wednesday was “Tape Day.” Anubis sank into the counter, nose to wrist, ready to watch the ritual unfold.
Every Wednesday, Rusty took the bus from his mother’s apartment, bought four tallboys from the adjacent gas station, and shuffled into Rube’s carrying them in their black plastic bag. Once inside, he’d plant himself in the cassette section of New Arrivals and sample 30 seconds of every new used-cassette inside his dirty Walkman.
This would continue until the tallboys were emptied, folded, and disposed of into a strategically placed garbage can with “Rusty’s Husks” sharpied on the side of it. With his thirst quenched, Rusty would buy one cassette with change or sweaty small bills, drop his purchase into the black plastic bag, and ask to use the bathroom. Every Wednesday.
This was the hardest part of the job. Anubis loved it. Sure, restocking the entire cassette section was a pain, but Rusty always said something hilariously cryptic before he’d leave. It was like opening a fortune cookie made of people.
Next to songwriting, people were Anubis’ favorite pastime. Any good idea or opportunity he’d ever had came from being around them. Ultimately, Anubis liked being alone, but something in “the universe” kept psychospiriting him in close proximity to intense human aurae. Anubis pulled their strange far stronger than any lucrative business, but believed if he were ever to make great art -- or do great business -- it would be through closer proximity to something a bit touched.
His faith in benevolent weirdness had been one of the few things he’d carried over into “being Anubis.” Though, he often worried this “faith” was just a bogus “ego-laundering” scheme -- or a “fetishized act of contrition” -- masking his deepest fear: That he was a “directionless-manchild-migrant” following “spiritual” weather patterns. Or a self-mythologizing opportunist. Or a brutal pragmatist with a selective memory -- and morality. Or “D”: All of the above -- and worse.
However, “Anubis” was -- technically -- only 6 months old. He had time to grow up again. He’d even started replying, “yesterday,” when “those snarks at the local free-paper” would ask him when his new birthday was. Anubis snapped back to reality as Rusty approached the counter, looking like a catfish with a five o’clock shadow.
He made direct eye contact through his thick, aviator frames. Anubis always noticed he had no eyebrows. Or they were hidden by his baby-blue trucker cap with his address screen-printed on it in flaking white ink. Today, his whole forehead looked furrowed, even without the eyebrows.
“This one,” he said in a severe tone and slapped the cassette on the counter.
Anubis looked down at it. “Of course,” he thought. It was a CATHARTIC SPECTACLE tape from the used-section of the store he worked in part-time. He wondered what this meant.
Rusty picked $2 in nickels out of his fanny-pack as Anubis tingled with a manic combination of hope and purpose. Occasionally, Rusty would stop counting and look up at him – almost as if he was irritated, but it just made Anubis more sure their moment bore deeper significance. This was a sign from the strange confirming the band’s brand-suicide was the apropos choice.
The-Band-Formerly-Known-As-CATHARTIC-SPECTACLE hadn’t even played their “first” show as Disappearing, but Anubis had faith this thing with Rusty was some sort of divine nod, letting him know he and his bandmates – his friends – were on the right path. Anubis believed in himself, his cohort and their mission. Apparently, he thought, so did the universe.
Rusty threw the tape into his plastic bag and began wrapping it around itself muttering something. This was new. Anubis was sure now, and in that moment, he let the entire universe know through a burst of communicative emotion that he was ready. He was ready for the next big thing and thanked whatever was out there for showing him the way.
The plastic bag was now wrapped into a painfully tight rectangle around the cassette, and Rusty seemed to be ending an extremely frustrating, whispered argument with a silent opponent. Anubis waited. Rusty popped his head up, like a concerned dog and parroted, “You’re prayers have been heard. Please be careful. Okay, see you later.”
He marched back through the beads into the store’s vestibule and farted loudly in the street over the shop-door’s bell as it closed behind him.
Anubis whiffed into the sign of a lazy cross, exited with a fistbump skyward.
Both stank of strange.
CHAPTER 1, PART 2:
The Break flipped off his burner with a sour gummy worm dangling from his pursed lips. It had only been 102 days, but he--along with most of America--was already sick of the President’s text alerts. They couldn’t be ignored. Break had done research. The luxury of denying such notifications only applied to imminent threats and AMBER alerts, not music videos from POTUS.
He held his middle finger toward his phone’s face until he’d spooled the entire worm inside his mouth like cartoon spaghetti. Though candid in nature, a part of Break was glad he’d taped over all the cameras. The NSA would never know he refused to “Dream big and rock on,” this Tuesday. The President reminded him of North Korea – but with a dash of Bonerpalooza.
It seemed more like a social media feed than a matter of national security to him. He was in a band. He got it, but there was something creepy about the commander in chief texting you 2-3 times a week with a platitude and a MeT00be link. Oh well, he thought, as he rolled out of his office loft, letting his feet smack against the floor as he landed.
The Break lived in a dual-zoned, repurposed post office. His landlord lived in a different country, so Break had divided his “Post-Post Office” into 6 different rooms. He rented them out to bands around town for rehearsal time. His business model consisted of being cheaper than the cheapest place in town, and this was how he paid most of his rent. He slept in “the artist condo,” which was the space between the back door and the last 2 rehearsal rooms.
He had installed a bunk above his computer desk and decorated a little cubby for himself up there, drawn curtain included. The bathroom was located in the middle of the building, so no client had any reason – or excuse – to meddle in his lair. That was his one condition for renting a key. He thought it was hilarious and actively tried to generate speculation regarding, “what goes on in there?” amongst his clientele.
Break pivoted on the concrete floor and cracked open his laptop. It was email time. He plopped onto his wheelie-stool and hunched over to grab a Charge energy drink from the cooler beneath his desk as the computer loaded up. He’d become the primary booking authority after the “name-change thing.” Ani wanted more time to work on new material and Break got along with their agent, so it made sense.
Six new emails at 10am. Break burned through the first five; just follow-ups on local slots. He aggressively rode promoters’ butts per show, making sure they confirmed good locals. If they didn’t, he’d run a MyFace thread and set up a houseshow. Eff’em. “Do your job or I’ll do it for you,” was his motto.
The last email was from their agent with subject, “Weird one-off//$$$.” He clicked it open and read:
hey, got n offer from Steeplechase Inn. mountain resort/derby town. Fits well enroute to NE in future replay. yall would be only act. 2 one hour sets over 2 days period. Friday n saturday. 11pm-12am.
bit of a weird scene but did BM there recently n went over well. Pays great. Seem eager to book yall AS Disappearing. Could help float expenses for winter. Good test-run of the new show? Offer attached.
– Bev O.
The Break opened the attachment. She wasn’t kidding about the pay. It almost seemed suspiciously high. He’d heard about this place from the BM guys. The hotel gave you 2 rooms to split between the band. One purportedly looked like something from a Vincent Price movie. The other room looked like a 1960’s motel and was connected to a greasy spoon diner. The hotel was beautiful, but there was a used car lot out front.
Bands played in the hotel bar/lobby area and most of the town came out. All ages too. BM said it got a little dark after midnight, though. Heavy drinking locals or tourists looking to party throughout the hotel after the show were to be avoided. They’d played places like this before. Break decided to do a little more research before responding.
He whipped a new gummy into his mouth and hit search for “steeplechase inn.” A preview paragraph appeared above the first result. Steeplechase Inn had been built mid-19th Century by the wealthy industrialist, Malton LeBlanc. He was a railroad tycoon and a horseracing enthusiast. The entire hotel was built into the side of a mountain and had no stairs. The entire building just spiralled up. “Like a slinky,” Break thought while sucking his gummy worm.
The hotel had been inherited to subsequent generations of LeBlancs. It was still in the family. Break dug a little deeper and read the diner, used car lot, and mechanic were all actually part of the hotel. They were other LeBlanc family businesses. Failed ones started outside the hotel with estate money by junior LeBlanc goons. Essentially, the kids kept moving back home, dragging their businesses like luggage. The place seemed like something in between a truck stop and a family compound. Break was sold.
He clicked back to the search results and scrolled down to see if he’d missed anything interesting. Sure enough, he found a TrueCrime thread that posted a scanned newspaper article from 1996 regarding the disappearances of Blonde Douty, Dalton Leblanc, and Malton LeBlanc Jr. after allegations of Malton’s involvement in a series of missing persons connected to the hotel: all brunette women between the ages of 20-25 and all former employees of the hotel’s diner.
Break found a couple of surviving family members on MyFace, but his rabbit hole was interrupted by a crude bang on the front door. The steel door was hollow and reverberated just enough to be annoying when an idiot started punching it. His phone started rattling all over his desk too. Bat Castle had left their key at home again. What a surprise.
He activated his phone’s flashlight and made his way through the dark to the front of the space. On his way, Break texted his bands’ group thread about the Steeplechase Inn offer while Bat Castle banged on the door outside. Break hated Bat Castle, but its members had rich parents who had signed up for autopay. He finally made his way to the front of the building, and flicked on the lightswitch.
He opened the front door to the meticulously anti-manicured pile that was Bat Castle and uttered a cheerful,
CHAPTER 1, PART 3:
The Ish wasn’t convinced “his city” still qualified as culturally relevant. He did not believe the mythic lore of it’s lifestyle journalism. Ish lived there, but to him, It City vibed like an open air mall moated by an interstate. Most American cities were heading in that direction. He’d watched them mutate throughout his 10 years of touring – bodega by bodega.
However, he’d benefited from the root of these unintended consequences and he knew it. He carried that knowledge with him, and his latest work was an act of penance: A pro bono piece. Hunched over his drawing table, The Ish was picking punches his guitar couldn’t talk. He had started making “faux-fliers” and “faux-posters.”
It was half performance art and half self-promotion; “like most things in It City,” he thought. This was just his version of the trend. Ish was cracking himself up inking the line work and paused to collect himself. He took a deep, quivering breath and rested his head in his hands. Through fingers, Ish admired the ossuary of well-lit bric-a-brac haunting the walls, shelves, and rafters of his workshop while giggling spasmodically.
He had been inking the “singer” of – in all-caps always – EDGELORD. This guy was 2007 for squares in 2019. EDGELORD was the penultimate manifestation of his It City roots being covered, smothered, and commodified by the gentry class. The Lords of Edge were all real-estate agents. They played “Open House Shows:” BYOB parties in dual-zoned real estate markets. The shows advertised their new properties. They were awful affairs: Veiled frat parties gussied up in punk-meets-yuppie aesthetics.
The Ish loathed EDGELORD. They were “worse than Bat Castle,” and he couldn’t wait to post this one all around town. He threw his head back and cackled into the ride-bell break on WorldJazz.fm streaming throughout his workshop. Three pending commission pieces barked at him from his pegboard as he caught his breath. The laughter had passed and he needed to hustle. Rehearsal was in two days, and Ish didn’t like illustrating for six hours before playing guitar for 4. Both suffered, especially his phalanges.
He stared back down into the face of EDGELORD’s Cad Curlee. “Guy looks like a quarterback in a New Wave band,” Ish thought. He quickly inked his “stupid face” and moved onto the mock-cut star below the band’s name. He had room for three words, but settled on two-and-a-half. Brevity was his strong suit. The Ish gazed upon his apropos masterpiece and giggled. It read, “Neo-Feudal Bullmess!”
Ish enjoyed being his own avatar. It allowed him to diverge from a linear narrative of circumstance he never particularly jived with. It made his art better. He could be loyal to that. It beat free-writing some protagonist role assigned to him by an auteured newsfeed he also spin-doctored for. “Jank’s demented,” he thought and rearranged his drawing board to catch up on commission work.
He’d been assigned the drop-menu board for a “stoner-themed” food truck. The joint’s name was a tree emoji; locals called it Tree’s. It wasn’t art, but it was a paycheck to fund more art. His buddy Al Dente hooked him up with the gig. Al was the kitchen manager and sole cook at Tree’s. He had to figure out how to actually cook the “owner’s ideas,” like the Giant/Philly Egg Roll Burrito, which actually were crowdsourced via Birdsong survey.
Al and Ish had been in wedding bands together. They’d still pick up some weddings if they needed extra cash. “Al’s a good guy,” Ish thought. Normally, he wouldn’t create a font for a trust-funder’s hieroglyphic novelty-afterthought, but Tree’s gave Al 30 hours in four nights of work. Whatever kept Dente’s piano tuned, Ish could get behind it. Especially if it paid.
Ish’s fuzzy admiration of the great Al Dente was interrupted by a dip in WorldJazz.fm. He was getting a text, and it was disturbing his vibe. “Probably the President,” Ish thought, and he ripped the aux cord from his phone and tossed it on the futon behind him. He couldn’t look at them anymore. He had to emotionally prepare himself before checking notifications now, and that -- only – happened between 12 p.m. and 5 p.m. He was unavailable for 2 more hours.
Ish stood up in his workshop, making sure to not look behind him and accidentally see his phone. He pivoted to the left toward his turntable and flipped through his crate of LP’s. The Ish selected a nice cut to match the rainy road-noise creeping into his workshop. He put on the record and got back to kerning.
CHAPTER 1, PART 4:
Glyph had an eidetic memory. Since childhood, it was the premiere skill that helped him skirt by. He could view his memories like photographs. How else could he handle it all? Glyph was in a touring band and tended day-bar at Williard’s for 30 hours a week, while posting towards an online Masters under his “penname.” His cubby beneath the bar at the pool hall was crammed full of paperbacks. It looked like a mini-library.
His gift let him pick up and put down multiple reads without losing the plot of anything. It was the same with songs: Once he played something once, it was there forever. Glyph paused his studies and scanned the pool hall. Two retired musicians scrubbed their polo-d bellies against the top rail of the 11 o’clock billiard table. A third gulped a latte in the corner next to a charging vape pen.
Glyph returned to his homework, a reader entitled A History Of Surveillance by Powers & Archon. He was blasting through a chapter dubbed “Panopticons: See, Not Seen” for a forum discussion. Luckily, Williard’s had wifi. Glyph could “express himself” regarding secondary-source material in a professor-mediated comment thread while getting paid. It was a fine system.
He preferred it to undergrad, where he spent 30 minutes parking so his professors could ask how the class felt about things they hadn’t been taught yet. He never raised his hand. That was just “MyFace before critical mass,” he thought. That was how he felt. He thought. Glyph was aware that his feelings were “incompatible with a societal premise that demanded their reactionary expression.” Posting made him feel like a patronized child with corporations for parents.
Reading them made him feel even worse, but that was the “neurological price of being a person now.” He struggled with it since college, where he began to notice he couldn’t forget a Newsfeed, or a screencap, or a Birdsong post. He couldn’t “unknow” or “unsee” anything. Glyph could browse MyFace as a memorized photograph – a horrible, amoebic, oceanic-roll of a photograph – after one glimpse.
He stuck to books for his own sanity. Forgetting wasn’t an option for Glyph. He had to prioritize what to remember. Today it was homework. He’d almost finished a chapter on prison surveillance. Once completed, he would disinfect all the pool balls with a bleach-rag and reflect upon his studies. Then he would sign in and post. Glyph blazed down to the bottom of the last page and ogled his assigned author’s concluding sentence as he dunked his freehand blindly into Williard’s bleach bucket:
“Invisibility is not a trap.” – Fenny Bouquet.
Gray water sprayed out his rag as Glyph squeezed it with transferred excitement. He’d wet his pages. Bouquet’s sentence hit him with an eery, supportive urgency that “theoretically validated” his decision to disappear. He was still mid-disappearing. The Master's program accepted his old identity – which Glyph now called his “pen name.” The paperwork to shift credits and financial aid to “Glyph Tandem” was proving to be a nightmare, but that’s what he signed up for.
Glyph was okay with that and so was his homework:
“Ideas never translate smoothly into our world. Nor should they. They are initially clumsy, pubescent – or dangerous and drunk with a hubris of entitled certainty. Specific, non-flexible particular visions of applied theory are suicidal proclamations by their espousing theoretician’s hatred for Life-Itself and Humanity. His inability to accept decoherence regarding the knowledge-fication of augmented datasets shatters the charisma of his fervor. He is merely a lazy prophet. He wants ecstasy without the agony. He does not believe: praxis makes perfect.” – Fenny Bouquet.
Glyph liked Bouquet. He was dreaming up a thesis proposal about his last book, The Ugly Duckling. His proposal would argue Bouquet’s obsession with both prison surveillance and the ethics of applied theory did not speak against the concept of institution-formation. Glyph believed they spoke for investigating, refining, and adapting the human values that justified an institution's weight in concrete – with the same vigilance that guards surveilled prisoners.
Glyph understood Bouquet’s prison example: a circle of cells with a tower in the middle. The guard can see the prisoners, but the prisoners cannot see the guard. It was a dystopian parable, but the parable was scarier to Glyph than its dystopia – because the parable came first. Story always came first, and he didn’t like this one.
“You aren’t supposed to,” he thought, “that’s the point.” Was he the prisoner? Was he the guard? Neither were qualified groovy protagonists, and maybe he was both. He wondered if – now – everyone was a little of both. “Prisoner-guard chimeras,” he thought, “Who is that in this story? The janitor!”
Glyph knew it: everyone was the janitor. It was like those '80s teen films. The janitor always knew the beat. Only the janitor could see both guard and prisoner. Plus, no one assumes the janitor is observant. Even Bouquet forgot to mention one in his storied thought experiment.
Glyph could dig it. He spun a cue ball in his bleach-rag and admired its likeness to Fenny Bouquet’s waxy dome. As the final ball squeaked clean, Glyph shifted from Williard’s back to Master’s. He whipped out his SmartBurn to login and post but was confronted by three cryptic texts from Amen Break:
“Want to play”
“A serial killer’s equestrian sports bar next Friday?”
Glyph replied with ,“Yes!” He used an exclamation point to communicate affirmative enthusiasm because “context coins content.” – Fenny Bouquet.
Cover image by Zach Hobbs.