The Bug Chaser

I always knew I wanted AIDS, ever since I was a kid. Not an actual kid, of course, growing up in Brooklyn back in the sixties. Back then I didn’t even know what AIDS was. None of us did, probably because it hadn’t been invented yet. Or at least, had yet to be spread through the ranks of urban faggots, niggers, prostitutes and junkies who would come to define, over the next decade or so, the “illness’s” mode. When I say kid what I actually mean is, a person in their late twenties, early thirties. I use the word kid in this liberal manner because I myself am currently in my sixties, and therefore people in their twenties and thirties look like kids to me. For example, when I examine photographs of myself from the early- to mid-eighties (of which scant few, most thankfully, remain), I typically think to myself: Damn, that’s one ugly kid, even though I was, by that point, most certainly, and by any reasonable measure, a fully-grown adult.

But I was an ugly adult, even uglier than I am today, with enormous, thick, round glasses, a hideous gel-streaked comb-over, and constellations of angry red pimples scattered across my hollow cheeks and forehead. I wasn’t able to put on weight back then no matter how much I ate. A hundred and forty pounds of skin and guts awkwardly stretched across a gawky, lumbering six-and-a-half foot skeleton. My fingers, in particular, were so spindly that I sometimes retched when I found myself staring at them. The way they moved reminded me of how branches scratch across glass window panes during thunderstorms at night, feather-like yet joltingly abrasive. It made me sick. I trained myself to avoid my reflection, seeing in my physiognomy an all-too-personal manifestation of the rot I noticed everywhere: in my life, my city, and above all, in the lurching, half-dead thing that had come to replace the greatest, most prosperous empire in the history of the world.

It was during those years that I first became interested in catching AIDS. I remember the New York Times headline like it was yesterday: “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” I was standing in the check-out line at my college library when I saw it. Each word seemed to hum with a magisterial, alien intensity. I’d always detested faggots but felt a sudden surge of jealousy, respect even, as I slid the paper from its rack and studied it wonderingly. Perhaps I had misjudged the gays. Any class of people that could find themselves the exclusive carriers of such a singular, rare “disease” couldn’t be all bad.

I’ll never forget that moment. It was like some seismic shift had occurred. I felt overcome with a sense of profound karmic realignment. All at once my destiny opened out before me. My palms shook and grew damp with sweat. I felt a ribbon of pre-ejaculate dribble out of me like pus from a freshly-popped whitehead. Hurriedly I lowered the Times to my crotch, to cover the tiny spot of wet I’d produced. An enormous tent had pitched itself in the lap of my trousers, and I struggled to push it down discreetly below the paper as I hobbled up to the desk.

“Newspapers are not to be circulated,” said the little brown tadpole sitting behind the desk.

“Shelby,” I burst out. “Where is Shelby?”

The clerk frowned.

“Where is Shelby?” I demanded again. “I need Shelby!”

Shelby Stonekirk was my fiancé at the time. She was also the reason I’d been waiting in line to get to the circulation desk in the first place. Shelby worked in the back room, stamping newly-acquired books with the college library’s official stamp and placing them on carts to be shelved by other student workers. Each day on my break between classes I went to the library to visit Shelby for lunch. It was a grueling ritual but one I performed religiously. Back then I felt I didn’t have a choice. 

“Shelby Stonekirk,” I told the clerk, exasperated. “Please! Dial Shelby and tell her she has a visitor.”

The clerk glared at me, obviously disgusted, but picked up the receiver nonetheless and mumbled a few words. Moments later Shelby emerged from the back room and came waddling forth, clutching two paper sacks which I already knew would be full of the most hideous, stomach-churning sandwiches imaginable: liverwurst, sliced boiled eggs, and soggy potato chips on Wonder Bread, sweetened perhaps with a smear of Smuckers Goober Grape. The moment we became engaged Shelby had begun to fatten herself up, becoming less and less desirable and more obnoxious by the day. I suppose she thought me too meek to ever break off our engagement, and thus had begun to fatten herself earlier than she might, had I been a more assertive male. And she was probably right. About my meekness, that is. I think it likely that Shelby was lesbian, or at the very least asexual. She was a sexless, chittering, squawking thing, already obsessed at nineteen with clipping coupons, daytime television, darning socks, the Reader’s Digest, knitting. I hated Shelby with all my heart, and was exceedingly relieved when, two years later, she was flattened to a pancake by a speeding city bus, releasing me from an arrangement I’d felt compelled to enter and powerless to quit. For months after the accident it almost looked like she might pull through, that she might in fact live for years to come as a sort of dribbling, bed-ridden, two-dimensional blob. I had begun to envision my life as her permanent caretaker, and had grown morbidly depressed, dreaming night and day of different suicides I might effect to spare myself from becoming a live-in nurse for this…thing. Thankfully I was spared this odious fate when an ICU nurse working the graveyard shift at Shelby’s hospital injected fourteen patients, Shelby included, with lethal doses of the heart drug lidocaine. I’ve always felt a debt of gratitude to this man, whose name, I believe, was Joseph, though I was never able to express my thanks, since he vanished in the aftermath of the killings. I saw in him a kindred spirit, someone sympathetic, perhaps, to my peculiar erotic predilections. It is rare to meet others who share your obsessions. But perhaps this is by design. If we outcasts came together, the solace we found in community would preclude us from accomplishing our destinies. Better to live in the wild as solitary hunters than to degrade ourselves in tandem. A lone panther in the jungle commands great respect; a sounder of swine rooting together through mud and filth, not so much. 

You may have noticed that throughout this narrative I have placed the words “disease” and “illness” in quotation marks whenever I’ve used them in reference to AIDS. This is because I am convinced, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that AIDS is not a disease at all. Rather, it is a miraculous gift, celestial in origin, designed to interface with the human body and spirit, drawing our species inexorably onward to meet its wonderful cosmic purpose. Most humans are not ready to accept their role in this design. Most would shy away from a gift like AIDS. This is why the work I do is so necessary. Human beings are base, low creatures, driven by carnal appetite, gorging themselves to death on food, drugs, sex and prestige. But there are those among us who are special, who can see the greater picture. It is our task to corral the stupid ones, to steer the sniveling masses gently yet firmly forward. This is the sacred task the gods have seen fit to grant me. I am a spreader of mercy, an agent of heavenly fate. A shepherd, as it were, of the divine will. Out of the vast, miraculous and mystifying code that lies beneath reality, I create coherence. I make meaning from formlessness, spin order from chaos. I am the Law of Karma incarnate, the keeper of the abattoir. I am a new prophet, a channel through which heavenly destiny meets its mortal match. 

I saw only faint glimmers of my beautiful purpose that day. But it was enough to sustain me, to invigorate and give meaning to my life for years to come. The words from the newspaper echoed in my mind as I stared at my fiancé and tried not to puke. Her lips flapped sickeningly as she chattered on about the Dewey Decimal system, or some other such bland, meaningless topic, shoveling sandwich after sandwich into her cavernous maw. She tried to give me one of the sandwiches, but I politely declined. I preferred not to eat at all in her presence. Mostly I ate tuna, or cold noodle soup straight from the can, hunched over the kitchen sink in the 200 square foot apartment I rented in Kensington, near Prospect Park. I kept seven rescue cats, and would often simply nourish myself using their tins of food, especially during periods where money was tight, which, in those days, were frequent.

Finally Shelby paused in her blathering long enough for me to speak.

“I’m…changing my major,” I said. “From journalism…to…to…psychology.”

Shelby’s jaw hung open. A clod of chewed-up liver the size of a ping-pong ball dropped from her mouth and landed between her breasts, where it hung, suspended, caught in the fibers of her drab knit sweater. Shelby wanted me to be a radio journalist. I suppose she had some fantastical idea of what that would entail, and found it romantic. Personally, I never cared about my major. I’d given no thought to what I’d become. I had no plans at all until that very day. I suppose I had some vague notion that I’d commit suicide when it finally became too much, when I simply couldn’t bear to look at that hideous, fat face for one second longer. But now things were different. Now everything had changed.

The face stared at me, a horrible medley of grief and mock outrage plastered across its dull, round features. The mouth opened and closed a few times. I gazed at my fingernails in silence. Finally the lips on the face tensed, formed the shape of a half-grunted question. 

“But why?” Shelby said, on the verge of tears. In truth, I didn’t know. Not really.  So I just said the first thing that popped into my head: the words which hadn’t stopped dancing through my mind since I’d read them, their music lighting my synapses like fireflies.

“Rare Cancer Discovered…” I stammered. “in 41…Homosexuals.

“What?” said Shelby, her mouth agape.

I shook my head and excused myself, said that I was sick, that I needed to go home and rest. Shelby shrugged, still offended. Told me to get well soon. At the door to the break room I glanced back at my fiancé, who had finally discovered the chunk of masticated meat dangling between her breasts. She pulled it loose, examined it briefly, then popped it into her mouth and smiled. I shuddered, and pulled the door shut behind me.

I was true to my word. I abandoned the fourth estate and immersed myself in the magisterial world of the human psyche. I graduated valedictorian from my college and immediately enrolled in a graduate program for social work. During my graduate studies I secured a residency at a correctional facility in Queens. Almost all of the criminals detained in the prison were blacks, and many of them were practicing homosexuals. It was the perfect laboratory, I thought, for me to gain hands-on experience of the new, so-called gay cancer. And I was right. I studied the prisoners from all angles, questioned each of them mercilessly about their sexual habits and proclivities, drug use, the sins they’d committed against God and humanity, their religious beliefs, superstitions, past relationships, children: anything that might reveal anything about the marvelous new “cancer” and its transmission. I watched breathlessly as month by month the prisoners grew weak, emaciated, developed coughs, mouth sores, the tell-tale lesions. I spent nearly all my free time in the prison infirmary, pretending to visit the nurses. I’d bring them chocolates, cheap flowers, tacky stuffed animals I purchased from junk stores, just so I could spend time around the dying prisoners, watching their bodies decompose, the slow transformation of matter back to matter, the inchoate mysteries of flesh become spirit revealing themselves to me moment to moment, day by exquisite, extraordinary day.

In truth these were the most exciting years of my life. The culture in the penitentiary during that time was akin to an inquisition. It became common practice for prisoners to set one another on fire when they suspected each other of being “infected.” Prisoners and staff lived in a daze of paranoia and fear. The slightest cough could be a death sentence. The angel of mercy was swift and brutal, sweeping up her chosen lambs in ecstatic irruptions of golden-white flames. I myself was lucky enough to witness two such immolations: like spells, sacred rituals, they interrupted the profane rhythms of everyday life and demonstrated, irrevocably and with great and solemn ceremony, the grandeur and wonder of Mother Nature, and God, and the great universal harmony of all things.

While I carried out my research in the penitentiary, a clearer picture began to emerge from the medical community. The gay cancer, it turned out, was caused by a virus. This virus could be passed from host to host via “infected” bodily fluids: semen, breastmilk, and blood. When I discovered this information, I felt like I was going to explode. Erotic intensity throbbed from the base of my spine upwards. The coiled serpent of my Kundalini awakened, alert, its reptile jaw snapping open, forked tongue extended, thirsting for cosmic sustenance. I pictured AIDS as an enormous blanket, woven from threads of semen, breastmilk and blood. I fantasized about wrapping the world in such a blanket. At night I would masturbate to this image repeatedly until my penis was ragged and raw. Often I’d need to ejaculate ten or more times before sleep was possible. I began to have visions of the entities who created the virus. In my visions these beings were enormous, as big as planets, and in near-constant flux, transitioning always between forms and states of matter. I saw flashes of fur, writhing tentacles, rows of sharp, serrated teeth. Blooming flowers, carnivorous birds, the mycelia and fruiting bodies of funguses. These are approximations, of course. The true forms of these great ones exceed the power of the human sensorium to grasp, and of human language to describe. Nevertheless I endeavored to construct rudimentary figures based on the forms in my visions, twisting together twigs, animal bones and teeth, the skins of squirrels caught in traps on my fire escape, moss and lichens I picked up during late-night strolls in Prospect Park. These figures I arrayed in an altar that I’d pray and masturbate to, morning and night. I sat in meditation for hours at a time, waiting for a sign, for a voice, a guide, anything, any sign from the entities that they heard me, that they knew I was ready, prepared and willing to obey them.

Night and day I waited for such a signal.

And then, finally, one came.

One night after my shift I went to the infirmary to visit the nurses, but was shocked to discover the entire wing empty of patients. All the beds were made up with fresh linens, and a sickening chemical stench hung heavy in the air. Only the head nurse remained, stationed at her desk like a sentinel, her head enveloped in a cloud of smoke, a Virginia Slim perched between gloss-encrusted lips. 

“What is this?” I cried. “Where are the patients?”

At first the nurse tried to play dumb, but I knew she couldn’t refuse me for long. I removed a plush teddy bear from my satchel – pink, her favorite color – and dangled it before her face. She eyed the toy greedily, licking her lips.

“Where are the patients, Nurse Violet?” I repeated. “Tell me, and the bear is yours.”

“They’re gone,” she said. “Transferred to another prison.” 

I held out the plush bear for her to take, and when she grabbed for it, pulled it back out of her reach. She cried out, as if in pain, twitching with agony.

“Liar!” I shrieked. 

“No one’s allowed down there,” she moaned. “You’ll get us both killed!”

“Very well,” I replied, and slowly made as if to return the bear to my satchel. Nurse Violet’s eyes followed the path of the plush animal desperately.

“Wait!” she gasped, just as the bear was about to disappear. “Here.” She held out her keys. “But not a word of this to anyone! You hear me? Not a word!”

She led me to a janitor supply closet and gestured at the back wall. There, inexpertly hidden behind a few mops and brooms, was a door.

“Fifteen minutes,” Nurse Violet hissed. She snatched the pink teddy from my proffered palm and turned the key in the lock. “Not a word!” she said again. I stepped over the threshold, and she closed the door behind me.

The door led into a narrow, brick-walled corridor, spiral-shaped and sloping gently down into the Earth. I crept my way along the dark passage, which led further and further down, deeper and deeper into the depths of Gaia. I could almost hear the Great Earth Mother herself breathing beside me, could almost feel her vast, steadying presence against my flesh. Smaller, floating entities flickered before me, tiny guides that whispered fleeting words of encouragement as I progressed through the tunnel. Their voices carried me along as I made my way further and still further down, down into the depths of the Earth.

I could hear it before I smelled it: a low, throbbing hum of human agony that echoed back through the tunnel to meet my not incurious ears. Within seconds of hearing the sound, the stench overpowered me: a hot gust of wind fluttered past my head, filling my nostrils with the scent of rotting pus, blood, festering sores, shit and rancid piss. I rounded the corridor’s final turn and came face to face with my destiny.

It was a spacious, near-cavernous room, filled shoulder to shoulder with cots, each containing at least one man. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands of them, more men than beds, men spilling over onto the floor, men huddled and trembling in pools of filth, men weeping and writhing in a great teeming orgy of misery and pain. My breath caught in my throat as I took it all in. The dirt floor was speckled with muddy pools of blood and pus. Everywhere I looked I saw buckets overflowing with excrement and vomit. The noise was cacophonous, bone-shattering, the men in so much pain they had seemingly lost their sentience, eyes rolling back in their heads, tongues lolling from agonized, lesion-encrusted lips. A secret dungeon, to stow away the dying and the dead. Out of sight, out of mind. I pictured the warden and his family asleep in their beds, safe in the knowledge that the virus couldn’t catch them. That they were immune, somehow, to death, and to nature, to the laws of the universe and the will of the gods. Safe. Immune. Ha! What a laugh. Did they think themselves immortal, these fools? Inoculated against the cycles and tribulations of the great wheel of life? Did they think themselves gods? Oh, such arrogance! Such hideous pride!

In a flash I knew what I had to do. I picked my way through the blighted mess as if compelled, the voices of the unseen gods pressing me forward, past festering limbs and pools of shit and blood, through tangled webs spun from yellow, sweat-stained bedsheets, past all the moaning, pustulent faces, until finally I saw him.

In the farthest corner, in the darkest reaches of the ward, one man sat awake. He was the biggest, blackest man I’d ever seen, his head like a prize pumpkin, massive, misshapen and engorged, his body so wide and long he could barely fit on the mattress. His face and exposed limbs were covered in lesions, purple and black like bruises, and when he grinned in my direction I saw just three or four yellow-green teeth poking out through a mossy expanse of blackened gum tissue.

“Hello dhere,” the man said, nodding and licking his chapped, sore lips. He moved like a giant puppet, his limbs creaking like they were made of wood. His yellow eyes never left my face. I felt him see through to my soul. I was terrified and in awe. “Ah ben waitin’ fo’ yuh.”

I must have stared rather stupidly, because he chuckled then, and grinned another gaping, gap-toothed grin.

“Heh heh,” said the man. “Ah guess yoo ben waitin’ foh me, too.”

He winked, and pulled his manhood out from beneath the yellow bed sheet. It was as thick as a birch tree, and as dark and musky as the fertile peat soil of the deepest Earth. I stumbled forward, entranced, involuntarily lowering my trousers, and came to sit upon the man, awkwardly straddling his enormous frame. The rest of the world fell away, all the moaning, miserable, half-dead inmates sinking into the darkness around me. The man opened his mouth and displayed his tongue. Etched into the center was a single unblinking eye, its pupil black, the iris radiating pure golden light. In it I saw reflected visions of immortality, intimations more painful and powerful than I can possibly hope to describe. Twisted vines, feathery wings, blood-soaked thorns, ferocious beak-like protuberances dotted with teeth. Skinny, branch-like, multi-segmented worms, quivering electric centipedes extending for miles. With laser-like precision and force the eye cast throbbing bolts of thunder into my skin and veins. I could feel each vertebra strain with the force and intensity of the power rising up from my sacrum, pooling in each chakra before rising still further, finally exploding out through the crown of my head, white-golden light spilling forth and shining up to the heavens, rattling the throne of GOD Himself, waking Him, perhaps, from His thousand-year slumber, if only so He could smile briefly upon me, upon the supreme act of mercy and love I now consummated. A profound sensation gripped me: one of renewal, rebirth, a bridging, or a crossing: my life begun anew, in sweet rapture, the glorious flames, white light, the cells of the virus flooding me, becoming me, and I becoming them. 

It did not take long. I opened up around the man like a whirlpool, swallowing his enormity in the vast cavity of my boundless interior. He began almost immediately to vibrate, as if struck by lightning, and I felt oceans explode within me, torrents of thick, murky fluid cascading through the hollows of my organs, rushing past the snaking corridors of my guts, seeping through the soft fibers and tissues of my innermost being. And I felt it then, what so few can ever claim to have experienced: immortality. Freedom. Perfection, as a vessel. As a chamber holding humanity’s gift from the gods, this torch I carried onward, from that moment, spreading its flame far and wide. Perfection. Finally, at last. I am perfect. I am whole. I am one. I am. I am. I am.

The man frowned, and slid out of me, and shrank back into the corner of his bed, shaking his head in wonder or fear. He scratched a sore in the corner of his mouth. The skin folded inward and cracked open, leaking yellow pus into the space between his lips. He coughed, shuddered, and began to weep and moan. And then he was just a man, dying like the others. Silently I pulled up my trousers and fled the underground ward, half running, half walking back to the infirmary, pushing past Nurse Violet, oblivious to her shrieks, and raced home, back to the comforting shelter of my apartment and my cats, and I sat before the altar and meditated and wept, and felt the gift I’d received irradiate my being, and smiled to know that the entities, the Old Ones, had granted me their favor at last.

As for the rest, it’s a simple tale. After I’d received my master’s degree I established a private practice in a medium-sized city upstate, and purchased a restored Victorian home in a small hamlet nearby. My practice is humble yet successful. I’ve been blessed with a gift for working with families. Children, especially. What can I say? They gravitate to me. They love me. And I return that love in the truest, deepest way that I can. I can’t solve all of life’s problems for them. But I can give those children one thing no other therapist can. It’s so easy, with the young. To fool them. To make them think it’s all a game. All that’s needed is a blindfold. A clean syringe. At times a mild sedative. Hypnosis can work wonders. I don’t give the gift to just anyone. Only the few the gift itself selects. The ones who are special, who deserve and are ready to ascend, to become immortal shepherds, beings of light and mercy, like me, heralds for the coming Transformation. We are all of us angels, me and my spirit-children, our souls linked forever by this heavenly gift. And so we live, and shall forever, arms linked, hand in hand against the forces of evil, an infinite chain stretching out across the universe, untroubled and silently waiting, waiting for the day when the great golden eye shudders open once more, enveloping us all in eternity’s glory, and we bask in its rays all together forever, and we bask in its light evermore.

Todd Matthews is an author and CEO from Binghamton, New York.