A horror short story by Joshua Powell.
The bas-relief face gazed back at me with its rictus rusted in place, a harsh contrast to the slime green paint peeling from the Texas summer brick. Its counterpart, with heavy mascara eyelashes and no pupils laughed noiselessly alongside. They were the bookends of a marquis—Dr. Wonderful’s Magical Explosion of Exuberant Cabaret and Co.
My skeleton of a Volkswagen van coughed to a rest, crookedly parked beneath the hoary display. My shirt hung like a sail, sweat through, over a torso taxed by a long summer of canned beans and the occasional turkey sandwich. I wiped my hands on my jeans, a collection of road dirt and grime and banana grunge. My canteen was empty. This used to be the time of a day I would light a cigarette. I was still looking for whatever would replace that time.
Red and white checkerboard tile. High school oil paintings on cracked walls. There was no door out of the lobby, but a gaping maw of a doorframe. There were literal spiderwebs, cross-hatching the spaces between all things. I thought I smelled urine but it wasn’t a real smell so much as a pervading aura of profound unkemptness. I stepped into the throat.
A hundred thousand stitched eyes greeted me. Spiders, I thought. Babies, I thought. A tangle of reddish yard like the rope tentacles of a beached sea monster. Corduroy? Gingham? I didn’t know the name for the dresses. My eyes adjusted to the dust mote dark and the vision clarified itself with a result nearly as unsettling as my baby spider sea monster in a dress—an interminable mountain of Raggedy Ann dolls, stacked in an orgy of blue and white checks, lifeless pupils dilated in the permanent dusk, a landfill populated by dolls in Orwellian uniformity. A vampire stood as sentry. No of course not. It was a mannequin bust, outfitted with a halloween latex mask, bleached and blood-streaked. He wore a jaunty hat, a paper cone celebrating a Happy New Year. He was perched at the corner of the doll mountain, smiling impishly over his collection. He wore Mardi Gras beads, a sick celebration like spitting in the face of Christ; the dark mocking the vestiges of former glory. What was another New Year to a vampire? For that matter, what was the world’s largest collection of Raggedy Anns, content in their homogeneity, passing the must of mildew from one to another the same, like some all-encompassing sexually transmitted infection.
An ageless black man, a real one, stood gaunt and bored behind a glass case with a rubber stamp and an apathy for the world. He asked me a question I have since forgotten. I remember that I said no. He stamped my hand. Upon examination, I could not make out the Rorschach ink staining the back of my hand. A rook? A fish. No. It looked different every time I checked.
The only other person I actually saw at first was a woman standing a little further in this strange acid trip of a high school youth group fever dream. I clarify that she was the only other person I saw, because I had the distinct impression that in the shadowy undefined around me, I was under the scrutiny of the leering eyes of a cast of characters deep in their opium slumps, their dirty needle fingernails, their pale sweat clammy imitation Gothic impressions. The woman’s face was framed by a short-cropped punk hairdo, dyed black in an unnatural symmetry. She was filing her nails, I think. There was an antique cash register and a cardboard sign with crudely written marker, advertising tall cans of Lone Star for three dollars. What else did it read beneath?
“Karma was invented to kontrol you.”
“Flakey and poopy.”
There was another dollar sign scrawled near the bottom, but I could not understand what it was pricing.
A Cabbage Patch doll the size of an obese child sat on a broken pool table. Next to it, a racist papier-mâché caricature of an Asian man’s face—a mask much too large for a person to wear. There wasn’t an inch of wall in the building not splattered with phosphorescent paint. Huge Caligulan cartoon characters in wanton acts of delirium. One painting showed a boy with piebald hair in an endless feedback loop of eating his own leg, body cockeyed in its contortionist’s twist, animated bone poking from both his fractured kneecap and his own hungrily split mouth. I all but groped through the dark to find the bathroom. I wanted the ink off my hand. It had changed shape again.
“Bush did 9/11. Bush did 9/11. Bush did 9/11.”
The bathroom walls repeated their retrospect desert prophecy. There was no toilet paper. I decided to hold it. I soaped my hands though. I couldn’t get the ink off quickly enough. It looked like a hieroglyph now. I rinsed it into plaster oblivion. I rubbed it like a sore. I used my fingernails. The skin on my hand grew pink and thin. I caught myself right before I scratched myself bleeding. I looked in the mirror and there was no-one behind me. I double checked.
I triple checked.
I think about it now and I don’t have a good answer for you. I could have left at any time. There was no door. There was no bouncer. I could have walked back out into the drooping Texan sun and nobody would have booked me a guilt trip. But where else was I going to go that night? I didn’t know anyone in that town. I was passing through, looking for the kicks. It was too hot to pitch my tent anywhere, it would have been an instant sweat lodge, just add water. Water, I thought. I remembered my empty canteen. I thought about the Lone Star and banished it from my head. Anyway, the mosquitoes outside were rallying outside. I’d seen a cloud of them earlier, pantomiming pictures in the sky, the way they did in the old cartoons. Right? They weren’t here in Dr. Wonderful’s Cabaret. Maybe mosquitoes got the creeps too. Maybe Raggedy Ann was some mystic talisman against malaria. Or hell, maybe they just didn’t like Lone Star.
The seats were torn out of some old theater. They were arranged in no discernible order in the main antechamber, like crooked teeth in the mouth of a cave, or like the pews in some Midwestern church abandoned to the vandalism of hometown teenagers looking for a place to trade crumpled cigarettes and pornographic magazines. I surveyed the room and did now see a few crumpled figures dotting the aisles. A man with long, curly grey hair hanging down his sweatshirt. Another man, decked out in business formalwear for some unfathomable reason, diligently pointed his field recorder toward what was happening on the trash-strewn stage.
I don’t know what I’d expected. Something from “Dusk Til Dawn” maybe. A metal band of thinly disguised bloodsuckers. Maybe some kind of Stephen King zombie drag show with all the music detuned a semitone or so. Or an honest cabaret, a trailer trash collection of fishnets and eyeliner who would turn a blind eye to what the strange men in the theater seats were doing with their hands.
The reality was less macabre. A young man with a patchy goatee stood behind an 80’s vintage Roland keyboard with his hoodie drawstrings cinched up as tightly as they could go. Only his nose and a few strands of stringy beard protruded. He was swooning into to a karaoke microphone with a whiny timbre while a cacophony of electronic sounds issued from speakers I couldn’t see. It sounded like a poorly programmed electronic drum beat was the bed. Over that, four bars of a hunt-and-peck electric piano riff. While he emoted inarticulately into the microphone, he slammed his hands haphazardly down on the keys, triggering ping-pong synthesizer sounds like an alien spaceship from a Flash Gordon episode with no discernible trajectory. It wasn’t music, but I had seen worse. At least his clothes were on.
In my seat, I craned my neck to check behind me. I blinked a few times to make sure I was seeing what I was seeing. I did a mental inventory to make sure I was remembering properly that I had not, in fact, taken any psychedelics. I had not. But a little girl (or was it a little boy in makeup?) was carelessly spinning pirouettes in a ballerina’s leotard and tutu beyond the theatre seats. The punk woman selling beer didn’t seem to have any investment here, nor did the emaciated old man with the rubber stamp. No one watched the child. The men in the theatre seats could not be bothered to check behind them. They were engrossed in the sci-fi sounds from the stage, entranced by the cyclone of overcompensating laser lights and disco ball multiplication.
I looked back at the hoodie piano man. He was mashing buttons like a little brother playing Nintendo. He was howling now. I checked behind me again. The child was gone.
I had to get outside.
Wending my serpentine way through the aimless pews, I walked in a daze, past the presidential condemnation of the bathroom, past the punk with the karmic Lone Stars and no apparent ballerina, past the gross parody of a disembodied Asian face, past the motionlessly writhing mountain range of gingham with their vampiric purveyor, past the old black man with the ink that changed shape, through the maw, through the checkered gallery of amateur oil paints, and onto the limey steps where I stumbled out into the industrial park sunset of Texan August.
I heard the music change from inside Dr. Wonderful’s Magical Explosion of Exuberant Cabaret and Co. I checked my phone and had service, but in that weird liminal way where bars show, but you can never quite fire off a text successfully. A cyclops yellow light blinked at the intersection, alternately illuminating the cracked pavement of some street named after a long-dead Texan soldier.
Morbid curiosity tugged on the sleeve of my stinking shirt. Piss and stale beer and another smell I couldn’t identify wafted from the door. Dr. Wonderful didn’t believe in air conditioning. I thought, he’d benefit from a Magical Explosion of 409 and vinegar. There were no other cars parked beneath the marquis, or anywhere else I could see, except for a bizarrely misplaced food truck advertising Chicago style pizza. I couldn’t imagine them doing a booming pie business in the washed out industrial district. Someone inside was beating the hell out of a homeless guitar, screaming nonsense words over the PA. You could hear the faintly scattered applause of the two or three ghost men when the screaming halted for a moment. I thought about the businessman with the recorder. What on earth was he doing here? Did I actually see that ballerina? I thought about cigarettes again and pushed the thought out of my head.
I had a sick premonition that my van wouldn’t turn over. It did and I audibly sighed my relief. Texas was heavy in my cab. I stuck to the seats. I needed to refill my canteen. The rictus faces that framed the marquis hadn’t changed. Right? They hadn’t changed? They hadn’t. Someone built this, I thought. Someone curated this. Someone had a building permit for this funhouse. There was a fire marshall in nowhere, Texas, too. The desert heat had choked the life out of my GPS a few days earlier. The thing was literally sunbleached. It tried to sputter a LCD display to life and then apologetically blinked itself into its electronic grave.
I consulted the scrunched atlas I kept wedged in the center console. I had picked it up at a truck stop in Galveston where a woman with sleepy blue-lidded eyes was chain-smoking Marlboros at the register. She had asked if I was from Colorado. I’m not.
New Orleans was still a mother of a drive, but I pulled out of Dr. Wonderful’s and found the corresponding numerals on a folded green sign a few blocks down. I had to get out of Texas. I needed to forget the picture of the M.C. Escher boy eating his own leg. I put on a record by The Microphones and it did not sound detuned at all. I was breathing easier, and the wind rushing past my weary face through the crack in my windows was ushering in a less stale brand of air. The truck behind me is following me, I thought. I watched for one turn, two turns, three. I pulled into a gas station and the truck kept moving. I switched off the stereo and breathed. Closed my eyes. Checked the empty cab of the van behind me to ensure it was empty indeed. Everything checked out.
I don’t remember how I got the string of beads around my neck. I checked my hand, but the ink was gone. I brought my attention to my palette—no traces of beer. No other vestiges of Dr. Wonderul’s Cabaret and Co. were visible in my van sanctuary, but it was undeniable that this Oriental Trading string of joyous purple beads hadn’t been around my neck that afternoon and it was now. The truck was nowhere in sight. The gas station snored peacefully in my headlights. I checked the cashier, nervous I would see a blue-lidded woman selling atlases and Marlboros. Or a latex vampire, or the gaunt old man with the rubber tamp. Instead, it was a young Middle Eastern man on a cell phone.
I pulled onto the interstate, fingering the beads around my neck. The night road stretched out ahead of me as it does forever and ever, in the name of the Lord, amen. Texas shuddered a final breath of pre-sleep and I turned on my brights and followed the atlas veins into the dark.