Cheeseburger Brown CHEESEBURGER BROWN: Novelist & Story-wallah
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The Vestal Bordello, a short story by Chester Burton Cheeseburger Brown; illustration by Matthew Hemming

There's a way you can feel that has no name.

You may doubt this. If you have a fluency for words your doubt will be especially keen, certain that whether it's a shade of Urdu you're after or a dusting of Basque, somewhere somehow by someone it's been said. But this hasn't. Not even in German.

If you want some, I can get it for you.

Go downtown. Follow the smell of secrets and sin to the right road. You'll find the place if you try. The sign to look for is the lack of a sign. All the other places along the strip have big ritzy signs, flashing signs, Vegas signs. But not the place you're after. That's discreet, sure, but it isn't about discretion: it's a hint.

If it were called anything it would be the Vestal Bordello, but don't call it that. Nobody says that. It's hard to appreciate why until you've been inside. Until you go you'll never understand the cheapening life suffers at the hands of proper nouns.

The Vestal caters to an exclusive taste. There's no sex, so you wonder why it's in such a red district. The truth is that any appetite, if poignant, can consume its bearer.

Pause at the threshold.

Four things are forbidden inside. Stop to think about it before you go on. This is very important. I really can't stress that enough. Don't step in until you're sure you're clean.

At the Vestal there's no technology, no nudity, no touch, and no language.

The first prohibition means you can't bring in telephones or wristwatches or marital aids. The second means you have to have clothes, and you have to be wearing them. The third means you can't touch the staff, ever.

The fourth is key. The fourth prohibition means there is a zero tolerance policy for semiosis. Period. That is to say there is a moratorium on symbolic communication systems of all stripes, from both tongue and finger speaking to Morse code and mime.

Leave your words in the lobby. They'll still be there when you're done. It's a matter of respect. You'll understand soon.

Don't whistle. Don't hum. These too are phrases of a kind.

You must cut the labels out of your clothes and put band-aids over the script in your tattoos, if you have tattoos, even if the characters are Chinese or Inuktitut or Klingon.

If you break the rules you won't have a chance to be sorry. The bouncer is the first evidence of this you'll see. He'll be big. He'll be wide. He'll have no sense of humour. Do not say anything to him. That would get you turned away. The password here is no password at all.

Pass inside. Come to the receiving room. The décor is elegant, you'll note. These establishments have a long pedigree. Quality carpet, comfy chairs. There are framed portraits of historic clients along the wall and you'll recognize a lot of them. Him and him, naturally, but yes even her.

The madam will meet you and take you aside. Virgo Vestalis Maxima. She'll know you're new. She'll speak to you quietly in French or English. Don't worry. This is the one time any rule is ever relaxed: for virgins like you.

Madam Maxima has been blinded. You can ask if you're interested. Her explanation is frank: “Never do what you deal.”

Recite a valid credit card number from memory. She'll have it checked, so don't mess around. The charge will appear on your statement as something innocuous.

(You can't bring cash inside because it has symbolic representations all over it. Don't ever bring cash.)

Madam will bring out the talent. It's okay to stare.

There's usually a dozen on duty. If you don't have an appointment you'll see whoever's not presently engaged. Some of them might be very beautiful but don't be distracted by that. This isn't about that. This is better than that.

Choose carefully. Take your time. Let madam guide you.

You've found a match if you feel yourself startle or shiver. Perhaps you choose a boy, perhaps a girl. It doesn't matter. You follow them through the corridor to a room. The door is closed softly behind you.

The lights are dim. In winter a fireplace crackles, in summer a fountain chuckles.

Sit down. The talent will sit across from you. You'll want to ask what happens next, to make small talk, to fill the silence. Suppress the urge.

The talent will look you in the eye. Look back.

You can blink but don't look away.

They are there because of their eyes. They'll be wonderful eyes. They'll have the kind of irises you only see in paintings or dreams. Radiant, fractally flecked -- absolutely arresting.

Allow yourself to be arrested. In time, time will stop. Or rather time will lose meaning, which amounts to the same thing when you're biological and travelling at non-relativistic speeds.

Keep looking.

You could lounge here, on the precipice, if you wanted a cheap thrill. But that's just run of the mill Mesmerism, everyday hypnosis as wielded by psychotherapists and televisions, by charismats and crack. Amateurs.

You're going to a place beyond the reach of any church or drug or stretch. This act is older than titans and beer, older than medicine and om. You can't meditate your way there – not alone. Neither can love take you there; Madam Virgo Vestalis Maxima would never consent to deal in such germ-line smut.

The eye of the talent has been groomed into a gateway. Go through it.

Not everyone can handle this. When it first starts happening it doesn't feel like much, so it can creep up on you. You feel things your body remembers but your mind doesn't and it can unhinge you a bit. Your ability to describe your own experiences to yourself will decay. It's okay.

You're being released from all metaphors, analogies, lararia, tokens, glosses, icons and quantities. You're sloughing off layers of memetic varnish.

You'll forget civilization. You'll sublimate to a space of persistent present, where ideas cannot be distilled from acts. This is the big before. This, if you've let yourself fall deep enough, is where each of us lived when we were new.

The first Australians call it the Dreamtime. The first Canadians call it Vision. For today's price-savvy consumer it is a nameless shame.

The semiotic void is a hungry oubliette. Knowledge melts. Briefly, the apple is unbitten. Fleetingly, you get to touch the world of your ancestor's ancestors' ancestors when all of us lived and died under the sky.

Naked existence, unmitigated by culture. A terrible freedom!

You will go to the wordless place, fully awake. This is where the vestals have visited since before Rome. Maybe it's even what Gautama glimpsed – who knows? But don't try to hold on to it. Your memory is toothless here.

Exalt, because your time is short. Madam Maxima has no watch but she counts the seconds. A gentle rap at the door will cause you to blink and shudder and maybe even sneeze. Your hour is up.

Be careful.

Your head will now fill with words. They'll sting. Inured, you'll have forgotten how pointy and skeletal they are, what half-measures they are. You'll resent them a bit, but this'll pass. Don't forget to breathe.

Put on your hat and coat. You'll be billed. No tipping. Don't thank anybody. Don't look at the other johns. Just work your way to the door and slip out, refreshed.

The world will seem worse to you now but save your upset for a private place. Don't freak out on the street. The madam hates dealing with police.

There really is a way you can feel that has no name. Drop by after temple, after church, after your work-out or after your lunch. Drop by in the dead of night or the harsh light of day. People do it all the time.

People you know do it. But they don't tell you.

I'm telling you because I can see all the words behind your eyes. I know how it feels. I see those knotted clusters of semiotic velcro staking claims in your brain, and I want to help.

I like you.

Try it once and you'll be back for more. Maybe many times. Maybe it'll drive you mad. Maybe you'll sell your house and auction your car. Maybe you'll do whatever it takes to once again break the semantic bonds of the endless narration in your head.

Maybe all you'll want to do is be.

It could happen to you, I think, because it happened to me. I'll take my finder's fee now. Be generous. This is how I save up for my next turn. You never would've found it alone. Don't hold out. Can't you see my hands shake? I need this.

And, whether you know it or not, so do you.


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CHEESEBURGER BROWN: Novelist & Story-wallah Cheeseburger Brown
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