An Excerpt From Nicholas Rombes’s “The Rachel Condition”

"The Rachel Condition"

Today, we’re pleased to present an excerpt from Nicholas Rombes’s new novel The Rachel Condition, out this month from CLASH Books. We’re longtime readers and viewers of Rombes’s work, especially his previous novel The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing. Elizabeth Hand called The Rachel Condition “an unsettling foray into places and people we glimpse from the corners of our eyes, sometimes to our peril” — read on for a glimpse into this surreal journey into the heart of a city.


Dear Anthony,

One thing more about the Psycho Femmes. Patti used to plunge the stage into darkness for the first few songs and then the lights would come up slowly. It was quite dramatic and it helped to get the audience on their side early on. But one night—actually this was like the second or third time I’d seen them perform—one night at a place called The Heidelberg, as the lights came up there was a box on the stage, a box that clearly surprised the band. It was about the size of a really big suitcase, but clear. Transparent. It was hard to see what was inside because of the lights, the reflection. The glare. This was in Ann Arbor during that wave of micro bombings—do you know about those?—that terrorized the city that hot summer. Of course, everyone’s mind rushed to give meaning to the box: it was a bomb, most likely, that an audience member had slipped onto the stage while it was dark, and it was up to Patti, as leader of Psycho Femmes, to deal with it.

Or it was a harmless prank.

Or the band had placed it there themselves.

No matter, it was there at the foot of the stage, sucking in our thoughts into its thick glass. Was it glass? I don’t know for sure. A few people in the audience left, and a few hurled beer bottles and even underwear at the box. Some people spat on it. Psycho Femmes was into these long, dark, metal songs at that time and she, Patti, stripped off her leather jacket and laid it over the box and I thought it was a gesture like you might do if you came across a fresh road kill, a small deer or a cat, how you might, if you were of a certain sensitivity, cover it with something out of respect for a little life lost. Patti’s gesture had the strange effect of both acknowledging the bomb-box and disavowing it, as if to say, yes, we see that you’re here, now we’re going to ignore you and play the fuck on! And from that moment forward the audience ignored the box that might have held a bomb, or nothing of the kind, and so did the band. It seems like a nice story, right?

Well, the show ended with Psycho Femmes playing a cover of “November 22 1963” by Destroy all Monsters, which they always did, and by 2:30 or 3:00 AM everyone had left. The glass box had been tossed into the garbage in the alley and there it remained for two days until garbage was collected. En route to the city dump the truck exploded like a grenade whose shrapnel was garbage, killing the driver and the passenger ( a high-school student) of a car next to the truck. We didn’t learn until much later that the garbage truck driver was Carlos Weir, one of the founders of the insurgency.

His face shredded up by the splintering glass.

They said they found a few of his teeth a block away, embedded in a telephone pole. 

A host of theories emerged: that he was the original target all along, or that Psycho Femmes themselves were somehow involved, or that it was all much simpler than that (in the way that truth is stranger than fiction) and that the bomb was meant to go off right there on the stage but that somehow its fuse had temporarily failed and that the box was carelessly tossed out and it was just coincidence that it killed Carlos.

No matter, Psycho Femmes were never the same. A cloud of doubt and suspicion hung over them. When, after a few months, it became clear that wherever they went and whatever music they made they’d always be associated with the murder of Carlos Weir, Patti disbanded them, although they still continued to make music on and off for the next several years.

They’d release singles with no cover art, no song titles, no names, just candy red vinyl 45s that would appear in paper-white sleeves in record stores without ceremony. I had a friend who lived in Fresno during that time and she said that the records would even show up there, in out-of-the-way record stores. Even though I’m close with Patti I still don’t know how they disseminated those red, covert Psycho Femmes singles all across the country. You could tell the songs were recorded fast, faster even than a lot of lo-fi punk music at the time. Patti never even told me about it.

She’d just disappear for a few days and come back and then several weeks later the records would appear. It became like a game between us never to mention it. I know I wanted to ask her about it and I sensed she wanted to tell me but neither one of us ever brought it up and I think I know why: we were both practicing deceit. Deceit in service of some larger cause, in this case the insurgency. We deceived each other with our feigned ignorance. I knew that Patti knew that I knew that Psycho Femmes were behind those records. And maybe the glass box. And maybe the death of Carlos Weir. And Patti knew that I knew that she knew this. Added to that the complication that we both happened to be seeing and sleeping with the same guy (although he didn’t know that we knew this) and it made for a tense year plagued with intrigue.

Patti never trusted anyone neutral. You were either for the protectorate or against it. God, Anthony, she’s so binary. But we never talked about any of that. This was one of Patti’s hang-ups, not to mix sex and politics, which is impossible, right? I guess if you psychoanalyzed her you’d say she had intimacy problems, but what does that mean?

That she likes to fuck without getting close. It’s all just so much patriarchal bullshit anyway. All the “great minds” of psychiatry are men, right, at least until recently. How obvious is that? Have you ever read Freud’s Dora case? The mute hysteric! Patti was obsessed with it for a while and that’s actually where she got the idea for the name Psycho Femmes.

All of which is to say, Antony, that I’ve included a cassette.

It’s not labeled but I think it’s from the show with the box. I want you to hear it.

Maybe they’re not treating you as bad as I fear they are and they’ll let you listen, and if you listen closely you can hear the hum of the box. I hadn’t noticed it at the time but listening to the tape there it is, like a siren or a wail just beneath the noise of the band and the crowd.

When I listen to it now, I imagine it’s a signal. A warning.

Love, Rachel


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