Approaching Hysteria, Illinois by Max Talley

This is the city in which time converges, an unstable zone where back then is now again as it will be soon. Everything crashes together, spume rising, the remains washed up on our desecrated beachhead. The place where everyone knows your date of birth and social security number, but can’t quite grasp your name. “You look like a friend, but much older and sadder.”

A woman in high heels and faux fur converses with her speakerphone while also sporting a Walkman and headphones. Along supermarket aisles she shouts feelings, fears, problems, then her invisible listener barks out unrelated opinions and self-doubts. Relentless jabber, a conversation between the deaf, needing to be engaged in some electronic communion while remaining simultaneously detached and solitary. Don’t judge. The confusion of technology is sacrosanct, and tramples over any rights to a calm, thoughtful life. 

Skateboard guy with a wool hat sprouting antlers is texting as he weaves his way through oncoming car traffic because going with the flow is lame. Dressed all in black, from behind you think he’s young, under thirty, but approaching now, he is actually older. Fell asleep in a skate park one night and woke up fifty-five. Rage against the exoskeleton. If you didn’t guess his correct age, Bluetooth and facial recognition will inform you, must inform you.

I imagine pale, emaciated teenagers wearing strap-on drone packs. Soon. They’ll helicopter around above street level to swoop at one another, some kamikaze demolition derby that hasn’t been named, isn’t a thing yet. A girlish female is crouched in the middle of the sidewalk weeping. How dare she sit immobile in these harried times of holy busy-ness? The rush of pedestrians groan with displeasure and swerve about her to avoid tumbling into a selfsame reality. Once you’re down, not in constant motion, the weakness sets in. Lives of the static in this misbegotten burg plummet, their faces the wrecked battlefields of purposefully forgotten wars.

Did you auto-sign the digital petition against the exploitation of your fragile impacted humanity? Keep dignity close; it hangs on as secure as a scab or flake of dandruff. I oppose all that the current leadership represents, proposes, achieves, threatens and hallucinates within their undisclosed locations. In the end, they win by exhausting me. I am exactly like the famed Soviet dissidents of yore, but instead of writing screeds with frostbitten Siberian fingers, I lounge on a couch binge-watching the inessential. They imprisoned me with entertainment. The search for the profound, the magical? Those were youthful pipe dreams, floating in college bong water and scooped from the rum punch of philosophy mixers.

We have not evolved, forever running behind, just catching up on yesterday’s detritus. You wake and wake and wake but have never woke enough. No man is an island; I am a veal cutlet: soft and reviled, out of fashion and condemned in enlightened circles. Witnessed countless confessions of strangers on the internet, their apologies for every ancestor’s sins, some ritual purging. Watched without comment, judging, my gavel a tea mug, ignoring pleas, yawning in boredom. Day after day I’ve been browbeaten; my empathy has turned selective.

In this confusing urbanity of gibberish-named streets, we are all broken, mismatched jigsaw pieces to separate puzzles. Those who could help are traumatized by a memory from two years ago that wasn’t current even then. They told me to write it all down, so I did in texts, in posts, in comments, in arguments with strangers who may have been robots: artificial intelligence meet artificial ignorance. Sensitivity readers have turned my novel into a haiku. Still, where’s my six-figure, five-book deal? I’m entitled to a localized, mid-list, what’s-their-name level of cult-like fame. Is pinpointed, spontaneous flash mob adulation too much to ask? 

Private security patrols abound in Terminal Flats, Americana. They shoot first and ask questions of the corpse later, so best to write answers down in advance. Thumbnail memoirs only, please. Everything, everyone is weaponized–with guns, knives, uninformed opinions. The first task of the newborn is to sign their living will. Their last task is to chill, relax, do go gentle into the anti-life.

We breed contrarians in Go-Fuck-Yourself City. Residents rise at the coldest, darkest hour of night to eat breakfast because…Alaska. Our actual civic leaders go unseen, cowering in fear. They use invisible spray tan over their goosepimpled flesh to blend in. Outstanding warrants have been distributed for their arrests, Wild West posters–wanted dead or alive–duct taped to lampposts or spread through funny viral memes. It is society’s failures who dictate policy. Follow or disobey. We don’t care. Friends will always stand behind you–so as not to be seen. Your shadow would betray you for a measly Susan B. Anthony dollar here wallowing in Fear Harbor.

Decisions must be made. They gave us a choice: either racial equality or comic book movies. You don’t remember? It was in microscopic print on page sixty of the agreement contract that you scrolled through and clicked I accept without reading. By agreeing, you voted for comic book movies. Extremely expensive ones. Destruction unlimited. But good news, they’ve created comic book movies with racial equality, so we can point to fictionalized worlds where we got it right and slap each other on the virtual back. Everybody wins.

The brain trust has robbed the coffers, used our tax monies for drugs that haven’t yet been invented. Just rumors of chemical scandals in gated communities and unreachable provenances come to us in dispatches. The corporate illuminati harvest our dreams into plasma banks then spit them back at us as insults during job interviews. Relax, everything is stored in the cloud. Except the complexity of your soul, and the instruction manual for happiness.

Hope remains. All of this will pass too. You and I will receive love and sorrow and laughter and depressions, one following the other. Dizzying. But outside the protective dome, don’t inhale, never swallow, touch no one, shrug it off, clog your ears, seal yourself in, and if you can’t wear a helmet in polite society, settle for a hoodie and a cast iron mask.

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