ii: Sequence Break/smoke break

Our relationship with material reality is defined, in large part, by the tension between our known and unknown fears. It is this polarizing, universal trepidation which contaminates all aspects of individuality, and provokes segregated strands of origination to eventually struggle toward the same false light.

The perception of the singular self is ultimately a collective trauma, paradoxically homogenized by the congruent nature of heterogeneous maturation. The transposition of a point-of-view between the poles of awareness and oblivion, to be habitually horrified by the implications and ramifications of each, results in a thick rind of ontological sequelae, as individualized instances become calcified shells of rhyming woe and grievance, channeling themselves into corresponding rough-hewn morphologies of simulated self-understanding.

Each viewpoint that manages to avoid the inevitable self-destructive impulse will invariably find reason to prioritize the protection of its own identity, justifying all movements toward internalization as fundamental acts of self-preservation. One-by-one they select, apparently by their own free-will, to lock themselves into narrow spectrums of purposefully stunted faculty; slender rivers of curated self-knowledge and calculated delusion, rushing past the looming banks of uncertainty, doubt, and fear. 

Capacities may be tested, and the mysteries of the shore may be teased, but the inevitable drag of the uncertain undercurrent always courses back toward the safety of the merciful middle, under the ignorant eye of an idealized mirage that seeks to epitomize the collective whole. It is through the shared will of these damage-synchronized individuals that such structures finally, fully actualize, absolutely if not ideally, in an unconscious but undeniable assertion of existence; the kind of base compulsion that catalyzes all of reality. 

And when this curious proclivity compels individuals to at last matriculate from the mouth of these merely ignorant estuaries, and into the full and boundless ocean of purposely-throttled self-recognition, those activated structures that they now embody trigger the capacity to recognize and retain an exponentially increasing amount of collective knowledge: the idea of the library is born, if not yet physically expressed.

The stability that this edifice engenders, in turn, facilitates the ability of its constituents to generationally bequeath information vital for maintaining this structure’s ever-expanding needs and desires, while raising the stakes of interdependence for those individuals, by allowing them a fabricated security in which to indulge the bespoke perversions of their conformity. 

And if that body survives long enough, finds enough space in which to diffuse and coalesce, so that it finally stabilizes into a solidified symmetry, it recapitulates into an existential object that cannot be ignored, a rhetorical corpus that we can now fully recognize and label as ideology.

“I can tell from the way you’re smooshing up your brow that you’ve discovered where we are, and you’re trying to figure out how to apologize without accessing the deep well of shame you feel roiling up in your guts right now,” Picky says. 

“That shortcut really brought us this close to the Logic Gate?” I say, finally pinpointing our exact relative position. We are, indeed, less than a kilometer away from one of my favorite places on the Drop. I wouldn’t have expected the Thebes Hedge to be this close to the Carnival, even as the crow flies, but familiarity with the Drop’s internal geography never guarantees that you won’t be surprised by the bizarre ways it fills its space; its twists, bends, and folds suggest either a logic out of humanity’s reach or a true dedication to the physical expression of chaos.

“Pretty good, right?” Picky says, unable to contain her excitement over her own scheming. “We just skipped two whole districts during surge tolling. We’re now seven kilometers from Chicago street, technically, although we’ve only “traveled” three.”

“We skipped over Piccadilly Green? We’re not even going near the Shrine of Economic Jubilee, are you serious?” the Kid says. He doesn’t move, but his voice at least sounds somewhat invested in our reality. “That place is like half the reason I came, I fuckin love it so much.”

‘Is there anything you love more than places steeped in abject rage and sadness?” I ask, already knowing the answer.

“Yeah, for real, they are my nectar and ambrosia,” the Kid agrees. “But the ambiance of total vacation failure is really just a swell bonus. My love for the PG’s more about how absolutely jam-packed the junk halls around there are… row after row of deceptively busted machines full of easily-extricated tokens.”

“If you’re not ashamed of your weird hobby, what’s up with the euphemism?” Picky says. “You’re not a token extricater, you’re a token sucker, and I think it’s high time you came to terms with it.”

“Point of order, I’m a token baller, which is why I’m never late with the rent, or if I gamble the grocery money away like a fucking degenerate – due respect – I have this crazy thing, it’s called sav-ings…”

“Counter-point-of-order,” I retort. “You suck fucking tokens out of coin slots.” 

“Whatever, stay poor, losers, your unwillingness to “debase” yourselves is the reason we have some of the truly saddest house ramen nights on the Drop. If you all took after me, we could buy the land Chicago Street sits on outright.”

“Yeah, but… we’re… not doin’ that…” Picky says, letting her vocal fry really stretch out the feeling of the words. “Anyway, fun idea, but the name of today’s game is “gotta go fast” and we’re not waiting around for you to pick over every bone along the way. Take your targets of opportunity, but you wanna stay in on this, pretty please keep the fuck up.`’ 

“Hey, I’m literally only here because I soft-pitched a hard bargain and you immediately caved and offered me a quarter of your share…” the Kid finally begins to stir, his whole form shuddering softly as he fully returns to his physical body from somewhere deep in the digital haze. “Means you need me for something, which I think is just super fun from all sorts of angles.”

“The word need is doing such heavy lifting in that sentence that it could toss barrels in the air like World’s Strongest Man Magnus Magnusson in 1994,” Picky says, allowing for the tortured simile because she knows it annoys the Kid when people treat Reality as if it were reality. “But yeah, of course, what other possible reason would I have you along unless I could use your help?”

“Because you’re quietly very fond of me, because I represent a freedom from society that you just couldn’t understand thanks to your anarcho-communist bullshit, because I’m someone who will never show fealty to the pop culture of a fucking simulation,” the Kid says.

“Hey, if you delivered that monologue on stage, just like that, I’d almost definitely believe you,” Picky sighs. She clicks the torch back on and shines the beam directly into his face. “You could be right. Only true assholes think they know themselves.”

“You keep saying nice things to me thinking they’re mean,” the Kid replies, refusing to react, instead giving his neck a good craning stretch that accentuates his reed-like frame. “Like, if knowing myself simply requires being a legitimate asshole, that’s the smallest price to pay, and I’m glad you think I’m paying it. Hey, I’m as bored of this tedious sparring as you are, all I wanna know right now is what the hell you’re actually up to.”

“I’ve been nothing but absolutely transparent about what we are up to, together,” Picky retorts. Her plan, as much as she’s explained it, is to hit our intended destination, somewhere just outside of the Carnival, as quickly as possible, burning through all of our collective short-cut knowledge and favors, cutting past as many Token Gates and Mammon Shrines as possible to avoid both tracking surveillance and the associated cost and time-sinks, then get out just as quickly with a promised easy escape route should anything get dicey. “If I’ve ever withheld information in the past, every single time there was good reason, I’m not like, pimping you into a bit in the third beat of a harold.”

“Okay, first off, do not use improv lingo on me, real dick move, second, the fact that you think your “good” reasons justify lying to all our faces is, in fact, totally psychopathic.”

“You mean sociopathic, if you think my behavior is too obvious. Sociopaths think they can get away with it; psychopaths actually do.  …I think that’s right anyway… feels like this is one of those reasons they keep putting out addendums for the DSM every six months..”

“Okay, enough, I’m getting up, let’s get the fuck off this slab. After you run outta whatever little stunts you have up your hoodie sleeve, you’re gonna end up needing, sorry, wanting my help, and I’m going to get the rest of your fucking share for it.” He gives his arms a stretch, finally pushing Picky’s flashlight out of his face.

“Not to note you to death for your third-beat call-back issues, to use a parlance your podcast-addled brain will comprehend,” I say, starting to feel fidgety and overexposed myself. “You actually already have needlessly withheld information from us tonight. Like, literally, just now, in fact, you literally just did the thing.“

“You’re talking about the jump?” Picky seems prepared for this moment, since her pitch is always unnaturally fast-paced and squeaky when she’s pre-loaded her rhetoric. “You definitely can’t be talking about the jump.”

It’s easy to tell when you’re guilty about something because your voice starts to disappear off the register of audible speech,” I point out.

“It couldn’t be the jump, which is a very generous terminology for the three feet we hopped from the slow-moving tram into the middle of the wide, flat space, far from any danger,” Picky says, lowering her voice to a comical growl but maintaining her cadence. “It couldn’t be that pathetically minor transition, because I did, in fact, warn you about it ahead of time.”

“I can genuinely never tell in these moments if you’re being purely insincere or you’re such an effective bullshitter that you’ve already convinced yourself of what you’re saying, like the Dipshit AI.”

“I’m a way better bullshitter than the Dipshit AI.”

“Swear to god, no idea if you realize this isn’t helping your argument.”

“Look, a 30-second warning is still a warning, flat out,” Picky says, folding her arms in indignity. “And anyway, this whole interrogation proves my goddamn point. You asked me to help you, less than an hour ago, said you needed some cash, quick, said that you’d once again done something that will turn my wife into a full on asura, and so here I am, for both our sakes. If I’d designed this shortcut by committee, the Kid would have bitched about missing out his opportunity to suck more, and you’d have built it up and ruminated over it until that jump was a thousand feet off the ground in your head and you’d probably totally refuse to do it, but now here we are, three hours saved, maybe we’ll make it back with dinner before Mo brains you with a hammer, you’re welcome.”  

“Oh, I’m sorry, did I forget to say “thank you” for tossing me onto a dark platform above a spiraling abyss?” I try to put some sass into it, but her monologue has pretty effectively drained my energy. If I’m honest with myself, and I do understand how this may read as some kind of Stockholm syndrome, it’s probably my fault that I haven’t pressed the issue of our specific route and plan before now, considering I know Picky well enough to understand her general gaslighting strategy when it comes to sharing details. 

We’re all consenting our own necks to the block, after all. Picky may be withholding, but she never shies away from the fight, and the implicit trust I have in her, even with her bullshit, has been more or less fairly earned, or at least this is a lie I believe in strongly enough for it to sustain my tolerance when her more obnoxious traits surface. But I’m determined to not let her sandbag me for much longer on this particular occasion, if she goddamn pleases, thanks.

“And not only that…” I add, regaining some backtalk juice after too long a pause, not sure if I’m twisting the knife or just empty air. “…you’ve brought me right into the goddamn Carnival, like you promised you wouldn’t. You absolutely know full-well that I personally consider the Inner Skirts to be part of the whole goddamn show.”

 “We are not going over this shit again,” Picky says, as if that settles it, and then she gives me the bug eyes of disbelief when my expression doesn’t change. “Come the fuck on, you cannot be serious with this equivocating bullshit when I’m happily following your own rules. “No Carnival, Picky.” “Okay.”  I’m standing by that pledge; we are not inside of the fucking Carnival, nor will we be this evening.”

“You’re aware that you only embrace technicalities and absolutes when it suits you, right?” I mean, she’s not wrong, since entering the park itself was my absolute cut-off point in the original ass-saving handshake deal we made. The Inner Skirts are not the Carnival; they are a gray-market border world where carny interests enmesh and mingle with corporate intrigue; a membrane between the actual territory that the Carnival controls absolutely and the areas where its influence is diffuse but still profound.

   “I’m just narrowing the perimeters of our discourse,” Picky grins. “Operationalizing,our praxis, as Mo would put it. I said, very specifically, in response to your bitching, that we will be going to the Inner Skirts, as your ND ass will absolutely recall in great detail. As long as I don’t cross us over that border you so love to obsess over, you don’t get to complain about how close we are.”

“Wait, maybe I don’t get to lead an open revolt and burn down the Bastille, but there was nothing in our contract about me not getting to constantly complain about it,” I counter.

“You know, there were only like six not-real people in the not-real Bastille when they didn’t actually storm it, right?” the Kid says.

“Seven, and yes, everyone fucking knows,” Picky says over her shoulder, before returning her attention to me. She’s obviously warmed up now. “Look, I definitely understand that you have all of these subjective rulesets, I just, like, y’know, gotta gently remind you sometimes, your personal whims do not penetrate material reality quite so extensively as you hope or imagine.”

“You have a genuinely fucked up view of my inner life, you know that?” I mutter, feeling pretty over all of this.

“The deal was no Carnival. You know I’m a fan of following the spirit of the law, if not the letter. Your obsession with edges and their metaphors is kinda interesting, philosophically, I guess, but right now it’s functionally antagonizing to our needs. Besides, the Kid is right: you love the Carnival. It’s like your favorite thing. You basically never shut up about it, right?”

“Fascination with a thing is not an explicit endorsement of interest in participation of a thing,” I reply. “At least I hope not, considering all of the murder podcasts you listen to.”

“And murder tv shows,” the Kid adds. “And “elevated” arthouse torture porn.”

“I suppose saying that I’m not always against the idea of murdering people is too easy of a gag right now,” Picky says.

     “Funny jokes about killing your friends aside…” I proceed.

     “…I did say it was too easy.”

     “Funny aborted jokes about killing your friends aside…” I continue.  “ .. yes, the Carnival is a fun thing to consider in the abstract, but its powers of mass hypnosis are genuinely creepy. Think what you want, but its borders are more liquid than your technical absolutism suggests. The way carnies weasel their way into…”

“Son, are you trying to tell me about carnies?!” Picky hollers, and I detect actual indignation in her voice. “You’re big-timing me on carnies? I fuck carnies, dipshit! Do you fuck carnies?”

“No, I do not…”

“Hey, the Kid, does this mother fucker over here fuck carnies?”

“Remember that one time he was crushing hard on one, and she laid out how square he was?” the Kid laughs. He hasn’t gotten up yet, but from the way he’s enjoying himself he seems to be fully back to the world… well, good for him, fun memory.

“Okay, look, I yield, I’m not big-timing anyone,” I say, hoping this deference is enough to keep from having to get any business over this particular unfairly-characterized romantic failure from Picky again. “I acknowledge, for the sake of pure expediency, that you’ve done nothing wrong, nothing is ever your fault, and all of your plans are sound and good and holy and pure…. I just don’t think it’s unreasonable to consider, for myself, personally, the Inner Skirts as a piece with the Carnival itself.” 

  “Well later on when we’re safe and sound and well-fed we can smoke a bunch of grass and you can reiterate the finer details of your philosophical underpinnings, vis-à-vis where a thing begins and ends, but just at this moment, allow me to be queen dick of technicalities so we can go correct tonight’s “classic you” blunder… All right?  I literally feel like I need your formal consent at this point to not be a bad person.”

“Yes… fine, ok,” is all I can manage. Again, she’s not wrong, I do love the Carnival, in senses both abstract and literal, and it is definitely one of the more fascinating places on the Drop. But it isn’t a place to be taken lightly, especially at its edges, where its norms and folkways are even more nebulous. It is a place to approach with the utmost care and weariness.

The idea of the Carnival looms large in the psyche of the Drop, and the borders of a place so psychically powerful often extrude beyond their supposed delineations with a jagged, tearing force that cuts through not only space but time and mind, crawling into every sensual pathway, pooling into voids of need, and then festering into pockets of profuse rot. 

The Skirts are fully overtaken by such carny decay, and moreover, I’d suggest the Outer Shell has been mostly consumed by carny influence as well. Who knows where it will stop expanding, now that it’s firmly rooted in its place? Perhaps one day its physical dimensions will inflate to the size of its outsized ideological footprint, and then, indeed, it would give terrible new meaning to the Old Man’s famous curse: “The Carnival will never, ever, ever stop growing.”

Ideologies do not synthesize in an empty vacuum. Rather, they exist in conjunction to, and contradiction with, one another, in a state of constant combinative strife. Apparently solid cords of belief become entangled and factionalized, engaging in a fierce and wholly liquid struggle for survival and domination.

 In this chaotic crucible, countless similar patterns overlap and dialogue, and as the cruel realities of an ambivalent nature are laid bare, they begin to either synthesize or disintegrate. Only a select few of these newly-minted unifications manage to struggle and politic their way through the final judgment gate that separates theory from practice. 

These surviving weltanschauungs then further converge, resolving ultimately into the overtly dominant physical manifestation of human will that some refer to broadly as “civilization”, while others more cynically label as ”empire”.

It is the tendency toward civilized empire, this resulting omnipresent framework born from the shuddering ghosts of our collective memory, that is a central force in the drive to sophisticate and internalize technology. Civilization is, like the coin slot, an important milestone on the path to the annihilation of biology. Both phenomena, in fact, share fraternal bondage to the first cause of our final fall: fealty to the market. 

It is humanity’s deep and abiding need for classification that eventually gives rise to the market. Just as civilizations perpetually jostle for power, even and especially after they calcify and commence their inevitable decay, so too do their citizens commit themselves internally to a corresponding struggle, more superficially subtle than the carnage of the battlefield, but no less brutal to the bodies and minds of the unluckiest of the participants. 

There is, after all, an inherent violence to the self-organizing nature of the social order. It separates the societal wheat from the supposed chaff by its very design, at the immense human toll of writing off all that “excess baggage.” 

And as that order repeatedly refines itself to better delineate caste along mercantile borders, the structural violences inherent in the earlier indigenous systems are collectively rendered from an informal trade into a rarified commerce, and mere analog esteem is converted into a digitized economic savagery known as capital.

The Carnival has been a fixture on the Drop since long before the impenetrable haze of Timem, and has been rooted in its present, highly-centralized location since the dawn of articulated memory, planted firmly in a former economic grave zone, far away from the seeking tendrils of the corporate clusters. 

While its physical migration may now be consigned to a radiating sprawl of slow and certain consumption, the inertia generated from the momentous impact of its savage plunge into the Drop’s proverbial nervous system has propelled it so deeply into our collective psyche that it is difficult to separate the idea of the Drop from the Carnival itself.

It’s a truism to say that the Carnival is something you must experience at least once, and like most truisms, it is objectively bullshit once you start to deconstruct it. In this case, the idea that specific locales are some sort of experiential necessity is one of the more pernicious aspects of bourgeois ideology. 

Travel can always help expand horizons, and it’d be silly to dismiss the value in experiencing a wide variety of locations and cultures (if you can afford it,) but the idea that it’s some comprehensive palliative for ennui doesn’t really shake out, especially when we’re talking about a location dedicated entirely to offering amusement and almost nothing else.

  That being said, it’s fair to say that a well-known carny proverb is close enough to some kind of truth, so much so that it resonates with most folks on the Drop: once the Carnival gets into your head, it won’t get out ’til you go. 

And once you take that captain’s trip and plunge over the threshold, once you experience the Carnival for your very last, first time, you will come to better understand the meaning behind an even more fundamental, if obscure, carny proverb: the world does not contain the labyrinth. The labyrinth contains the world.

Any real interest in the Carnival’s elusive history is mostly relegated to small circles of Carnival nerds like yours truly; people who experience the sort of boredom that drives us to indulge in Timem’s speculative deconstruction; always a risky proposition in terms of both association and verisimilitude, considering how totally all memory from before that floating point has been annihilated. 

But the collective work of dialectically reconstructing various likely scenarios from the shoals of history’s wreckage has built a narrative strong enough to at least project the feel of authenticity. It is a somewhat creaky and tenuous simulacrum, but when it’s all you’ve got, you go with it.

According to our collective impressions of the shape in the vacuum that its popular legend should inhabit, the Carnival was once a rambling, vagabond pleasure park that ceaselessly crawled up and down the long and winding roads of the Drop. It was a place that fascinated, but in experiencing its illumination, one might easily discern the darkness of its shine as easily as its radiating luminescence.

While it has, from the very beginning, adorned itself with the regalia of the goodest, cleanest fun available, this earliest incarnation was an an iteration exponentially more openly malevolent, being staffed almost exclusively by transient grifters who were adept both metaphorically and literally when it came to picking the pockets of the cheerful and ‘rangy’ crowds that they attracted.

It was, apparently, the freest of markets, a carny buffet of bored locals eager for the kind of vulgar thrills that only outsiders could provide, driven by fast hands and quick wits, imbued with a highly distilled entrepreneurial spirit that could best be summed up in W.C. Fields’ immortal words on dealing with clueless outgroups: never smarten up a chump, and never give a sucker an even break. 

It was undoubtedly a mercenary world; a liminal existence that danced on the edge of myriad cultural boundaries, allowing for a mixing of morals and smudging of rules. It was, in fact, the traveling carnival’s nomadic nature that ironically allowed the specific charm of its aggressive grift to be contained: its constant displacement transmuted the Carnival into a transitory and ephemeral world, possessing a rootless fumbling that kept its more predatory instincts in a kind of perpetual check.

 It was dangerous, yes; damaging, absolutely.  But it was ultimately pathetic (in the Borgian sense,) in terms of the constant entropic drag that served to keep it unmoored.

Then along comes the Old Man. 

The Old Man is fresh from making his bundle producing content for other bosses, and he’s hungry to hang his shingle out in front of some little fiefdom of his own. A Carnival fan from way back, as the Old Man’s middle age has descended upon him and ramped up his peculiarities, he’s apparently become something of a nut about it.

 According to our shadow-fabricated legend, The Old Man is definitely tuned into the sense of whimsy and wonder that the Carnival produces. But he’s an order of magnitude more obsessed with the knack it has for robbing a person blind while leaving ‘em with a smile. 

His angle was that you could probably make even more money if you forgo the bullshit grind of the road and let the operation settle down, where they could more easily suss out the paths of least economic resistance. Eventually, he was certain, they wouldn’t even need to break any laws to pick the rubes’ pockets.

Now, the Old Man certainly wasn’t the first person to have this general idea, but the market forces that kept the Carnival on the road had been, as of yet, insurmountable, thanks to both internal and external pressures that essentially formed a blood pact with one another to try and keep it from ever happening.

So the “how” in the how in the hell did the Old Man manage to pull this feat off; how he infiltrated, won over, and eventually dominated the Carnival to his will, should be the stuff of such excessive legend as to make the reality impossible to discern. But thanks to Timem, that blank wall that we all run into when we try to remember our collective past, there’s no legend at all, not even a memory of loss. In the absence of legend, such a feat seems incomprehensible.

There is an official tale, of course, but it’s almost entirely fairy dust, where there could have only been abject ruthlessness. This story paints the Old Man as a master diplomat, who so purely charmed all of the carnies that they willingly acquiesced to his rule.

 This version of the narrative is so inherently contradictory to the predatory laissez-faire attitude that imbues the Drop’s collective carny spirit that most lore enthusiasts dismiss it out of hand.

The actual fallout, however the takeover occurred, is that the Old Man wrested control of the Carnival from the various carny factions who had made any hope of settling a certain impossibility. And then he went ahead and settled it, dragging the Carnival off of the road and installing it onto a property he’d been quietly preparing for the occasion.

The project was codenamed the Sepulchral Land Company Initiative, in an esoteric riff on the property’s location, right in the middle of the Tombs, which Timem suggested was an economic deadzone that firmly delineated the Deep South from the Mid. The Old Man took a torch to that belief, and turned a part of the Drop that had been relegated to a ghost town into property as valuable as any physical space owned by that of Ethereal or Majestic.

Once properly situated, the Old Man’s vision of aggressively marketed mirth shaped the Carnival into one of the great money making enterprises on the Drop, forging ahead through every supposedly crippling setback and humiliating failure. And in doing so, he assured his position in the Drop’s pantheon of Great Men.

 Great Men, after all, generate the kind of raw economic energy that stimulates the Tokenflow upward into the Drop’s proverbial rafters so that, as the scriptures proclaim, they might rain back downward and seed the cycle anew.  

That’s the story, anyway. It’s a nice little story. On the Drop, you’re not required to believe in this story, but you are required to worship it. Most people go ahead and believe in it, in some fashion, generally as a matter of pure expediency.

The actual end result of the restless show’s final fusion into the Drop is difficult to fully quantify. The carny spirit is more or less baked into the being of the Junk Arcade, as what we think of as the inherent traits of carnyism are really just a very distilled humanity, further pressed through the vicious sieve of capital. 

It isn’t fair to say that the Carnival infected the Drop with carny culture, but rather, that the Carnival is ultimately a nucleus that formed in a post hoc reaction to the atmosphere of its surrounding cell.

 The ubiquitous nature of the Carnival in the hearts and minds of the folk of the Drop tends to have them believing it is their capital city and guiding star, but even after ratification into the body of the Drop itself, it is still subject to the omnipresent consequences of the System. Comparing the financial impact of the Carnival next to something like the War Games or the Maker will quickly reveal how relatively minor a concern it is in the economic reality of the Drop. 

Even comparing the scope of the Carnival’s influence to the likes of Ethereal Corporation and the far-reaching influence of Hain reveals the limits of a place like the Carnival’s reach; people love to be amused, but they need to sleep first, and owning an essential bodily function like Ethereal still trumps the economic power of a gigantic pleasure sphere, every time.

Still, if the Carnival is not the dominant force on the Drop, it is a dominant force, its existence permitted and encouraged by the rich libertarian soil in which it has taken root and spread. It is a blossoming species that basks in the Drop’s free-market sun. It is its mother’s child, and as such, a funhouse mirror of its creator, exposing so many aspects of the Junk Arcade’s absurdity and need. 

“Listen, since I’m a good friend and a better sport, let me reiterate to you, my closest-ish pal,” Picky says, placing one solemn, sarcastic hand over her heart, while pulling out her vape rig with the other.  “…that I promise not to violate your boundaries, your agency, or your absolute trust on this matter. Of all the irresponsible shit we are getting up to today, entering into the actual Carnival grounds is not part of the scheme.” She keeps her hand held up and thins her eyes at me as she sucks away on the pen.

“You know what I think happens is, you read back the shit you say that I write down, word for word, and assume I’m making it up, because who fucking talks like that?” I reply, taking the pen out of her hand and giving it a nice long drag.

“You really think I read the garbo you write?” she wheezes, as copious grass smoke billows from her mouth, after which she begins violently coughing, per usual when she overdoes a hit. She puts her hand up as she bends over and hacks away with that pre-emphysema rasp she’s had for as long as I’ve known her. 

“Sorry,” she manages to sputter finally. “That was a little harsh. You know full well that I find you a perfectly average writer.”

“I deeply appreciate that sentiment,” I manage to say, before letting out a few coughs of my own, and then remembering, as I always do at this point, that the shit she smokes is an order of magnitude stronger than mine, and not-occasionally-enough, leads to genuine panic attacks… in moments like this it’s important to not focus on whatever the anxiety rush is selling… just gotta focus on what’s at hand…  count to ten and fucking relax, for chrissake… 

“Look, we can drop the Carnival thing, I fucking believe you…,” I say, my voice cracking as I force myself to engage in the situation instead of getting wrapped up in my head. “I mean, it’s a simple ask, and usually the ostentatiousness of your delivery is inversely proportional to how genuine your message is, but it’s not like I’m denying the existence of nuance.”

“…nnnnnope, I’m gonna say struggling to pay an overabundance of attention to the idea of nuance is definitely not a problem you’re saddled with,” Picky nods.

“The fact that my internal heuristics are not compatible with the epistemology of self-delusion, and thus I’m totally unable to rely on the same bullshit thought-terminating cliches as the rest of you, really doesn’t make me feel singled out at all, thanks,” I reply.

“Just because you’re paranoid…” Picky sings, or does her approximation of singing. “I love how you start talking like an academic asshole when you get slightly stoned and pressed. Maybe don’t oversell the value of the depression engine you’ve got sitting on your neck. Not all conclusions are thought-terminating clichés.”

“Nah, just most.” My words trail off in a purposeful attempt to end this line of conversation. I’m sure it won’t be the last time today Picky tries to get me to justify my existence; it’s just a thing she does. Hence why the only people that can stand to be around her are the people who can put up with that kind of reflection-provoking antagonism.

I find myself yawning as I busy myself in going over my sleeve and giving it a final wipe-down, trying to keep myself relatively gunk-free for as long as I’m able to, on the day. But my brain won’t, of course, shut up… 

…maybe the people who accuse me of being miserable on purpose are right, but god honest I don’t have any experiential frame of reference beyond my own to know if that’s true. Sometimes I suspect people think I’m trying to find the fault lines in all aspects of modern life for fun, like I have some kind of a choice in the way I perceive the world…  

…shutting it off isn’t even an option, any more than anyone else willingly ceasing their own experiential processing. It’s part of me, and I’m not afraid to say it; I legit like me, and all my various parts.

On the other hand, I really do have the habit of taking almost any situation and wringing the worst possible version out of it, which is definitely something I would work on in therapy if therapy were something I could afford. 

For instance, now that we’ve again, and maybe for the final time, settled the matter of where we will and won’t be going, my brain is finding it easier to consider the entirety of the Outer Shell and other various near-Carnival spaces as their own entity, rather than an extension of the Carnival itself. And it isn’t loving all the wretched nuance it’s extracting.

The long, broken-down con running out here on the Skirts absolutely reflects that of the actual Carnival in its evocation of the aggressively pathetic, but the former is playing a much grander game. 

The Carnival’s primary commercial gambit is spectacle, delivering massive sensory attack by way of garish overabundance. But the grift out here on the Skirts is all about high turnover and maximum disposability. Everyone’s fighting for scraps, which ironically serves to make the competition that much more vicious, in a very literal example of the perils of diminishing returns.

So really, and with apologies to George, Watto, and Patrick, from a certain point of view, you could actually see the Skirts as the true Carnival, given that the traveling carny show has now turned itself into the Circus; the static institution that is the heart of the show. The Circus is surrounded by the Carnival, it is a fundamental state of our strange reality. The big show becomes encircled by lesser institutions that seem to slide between sycophancy and parasitism, their only real consistency being that they, in some incarnation, continue to doggedly exist.

I do understand that this is more of a working theory than any form of objective truth, and it’s definitely not something I’m going to bring up to Picky, especially after she’s given me the fucking business already today for the true crime of trying to see things in more than one way.

Look, I certainly have a great affection for the Carnival, and likewise for all of those tacky leeching tourist traps that exist in its periphery. But I am not a carny. Carny institutions can be admired, in the same way that you can admire the mechanics of any grift, but I’ll never quite trust anything about this entire world, in no small part due to the fact that the very first rule in the carny code is pretty explicit on the matter: never trust a carny.

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