Sunday Stories: “The Pixel Trade”



The Pixel Trade
by Nicholas Rombes

To be or not to be had long since lost its ontological charm. What puzzled us now was not existence, but duration.

In those days everyone was trading something for something else. By the time pixels came onto the market most of them had already been depleted. Depleted and stored, it turned out, in vast warehouse dumps that were former factories. I had been ordered to interrupt the power at the largest conglomerate of these warehouses long enough for dissipation, which was apparently what happened when the screens which stored the pixels went dark for more than five seconds.

The assignment came from my usual source, Thune, whose adherence to the most unbending, ferocious, bone-breaking policies of The Messiah Detectives made him less and less useful and more and more dangerous. Did Thune know–as I did–that the assignment he was about to hand me was, in fact, a ruse designed to sideline, once and for all, Thune himself? That he had been my friend for over twenty years, and that he had saved me on at least two occasions from the gloved hands of those who would disfigure me with pliers and drills, what to make of that? How does that enter into the equation of his elimination?

Not at all, it turns out. For I knew Thune suspected the assignment he was about to deliver to me was an assignment that spelled his end, at my hands.


The factories are located in Durrës, Albania, north of Niko Dovana Stadium, whose blue fencing and seats always puts me in mind of the sea. I arrive at dusk, having traveled by train, hours in advance of my appointment with Thune. At the local tavern, by flickering lantern light, a kind of rusted light, I eat a simple meal. Then I move to a stool at the bar, where, having a beer, I notice a symbol carved into the wood. Not so much a symbol, it seems, as a code: 110 1101. Small enough for the base of my glass to cover it. The bartender wears a leather butcher’s apron. His moustache is the color, I imagine, of a fox. Kuqu ujk, he says, in Albanian, nodding to a large man in the corner. Yes, I say, and then, because the language is coming back to me now, po.

Behind the bar, mixed in amongst the dark bottles, is a small skeleton under a dusty glass dome of what can only be a dinosaur.

The bartender, he replaces my empty glass with a new glass of beer. He wipes the counter and brings a bowl of olives and a napkin. He lights another lantern. His cell phone rings and he answers it gruffly, then switches to soft tones as he walks away from me. I only catch fragments, and of those only understand a few. E prempte (Friday). Dhomë (room). Thikë (knife). I strain to listen. We all listen. The large man in the corner shifts the newspaper he is reading, or pretending to read. By the time Thune arrives it’s past ten o’clock, and the tavern is crowded. He spots me and comes over. I undrape my overcoat from the seat next to me at the bar and Thune sits down. His scars, his scars! They always shock me, no matter how many times I see him. Especially in this light they are deep and shadowed, like valleys at sunset. Smiling only makes them worse, throws his face into deeper darkness. And casts all around him in that darkness.


The impossibility of Thune. His obsession with formalities! His absurd analog nostalgia! His sine wave generators! The burden of numbers. The accumulated blackbirds sagging the branch. How these things go unnoticed by all but Thune! His mouth a sling for language. Of this created world Thune’s task: to uncreate it. How he walks unsteadily as if pushed down a mountainside every day of his life. Thune fighting with the air and calling it sanshou. Thune’s initiation, twenty years ago: splitting open a head with a hatchet.


“So,” he says, “here we are.”

“Thune,” I say, touching his back, “I knew you’d find me.”

He signals to the bartender and points to my glass. Soon, a beer appears for him, as well. Outside there is a bright blue flash of light and then the ground rattles slightly. It appears best not to acknowledge this.

“Cheers,” Thune says, lifting his glass.

Gëzuar,” I reply in return, touching mine to his.

“The assignment,” he says, removing–as usual–a think brown envelope from his shirt pocket and placing it on the bar. It as an old ritual from the analog days, unnecessary but meaningful, like rituals are. Unnecessary because we both already knew the nature of the assignment. Inside the envelope is a smaller envelope, and then a smaller one inside that, which holds a precisely drawn map on a square of graph paper, a razor blade, and a black button which I was to sew onto my left shirt sleeve cuff, replacing the one that was there. Thune had always told me it was a homing device, for my protection, but I never did believe him. It was just a button, I was sure.


This was a fairly depixilated town, in a mostly depixilated country, which made it even stranger to think that, just miles from here, trillions upon trillions of pixels accumulated in storage screens. How and why pixels had become such a commodity no one could say. It wasn’t the sort of question that was asked these days. In fact, it was fairly remarkable how quickly we had all adapted to the imprecise, jagged, depleted images that constituted our screens of late. After decades of so-called high definition, we had regressed, and who was to say there was not a certain pleasure in that?

“What’s your philosophy, Bronson?” Thune asks. “What guides you?”

I had learned a long time ago to respond to Thune directly and quickly no matter the nature of his queries.

“I’m a pragmatist,” I tell him. There is another explosion of blue light outside. The floor shakes harder this time. Some blood drips from the bartenders’ apron. Still, those gathered in the tavern pretend not to notice.

“Peirce or James?”



“The religious angle, I suppose.”

“The ‘religious’ angle. You ‘suppose.'”

“That and the forced and avoidable option: there is no possibility of not choosing.”

Thune had finished his beer and signaled for another.

“But there’s always a possibility of not choosing, Bronson.”

“That’s not so. Not when not choosing is itself an option.”

“‘That’s not so,’ he says back, smiling. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Thune smile before, and it frightens me.


I wait in my room above the tavern for further instructions. These would come not from Thune, but from the one Thune did not know, could not know. For if Thune suspected that I was to interrupt power to the pixel storage screens, did he also know that I was not only to interrupt–but eliminate–power to Thune himself? My allegiance to the Messiah Detectives was unwavering, and as close as Thune I were I knew that, were he in my position, he would do the same thing.

The next day passes, and the next. The sun burns in the sky and then disappears at night. I bide my time, journeying down the canted wooden stairs to the tavern below only for food and drink. The bones of the dinosaur seem to have grown. The bartender’s apron appears more and more bloodspattered. He may has well have spent his time in front of some Pollock imitator. But there was no time for Pollock anymore. His era had passed.

We were all Figuratists now.

This impulse is what lies behind the disappearance of pixels. I spend the rest of my time in my small room, overlooking the cobblestoned streets and the decrepit weed-overgrown town green, the sky swelling and then depleting itself of birds, and disassemble and reassemble my weapon, oiling and polishing it. Sometimes I leave it on the wooden desk as the sun creeps across it, admiring its insect-like design. Although it’s fashioned of soft gray metal its mandibles are sharp enough to cut, of course, through bone.

Thune would normally have left town after handing me my directive, but he tells me he needs to stay because the Messiah Detectives have given him another, secondary assignment. This, of course, was part of the ruse which I had been briefed on prior to my arrival. Ignore all protocols, I was told. In fact, my assignment has nothing to do with pixels, unless you considered Thune himself nothing more than a collection of pixels.

This was the question, was it not? To be or not to be had long since lost its ontological . . . what puzzled . . . not existence . . . duration. The reproducibility of codes, and in Thune apparently some code that had outlived its usefulness, though swigging his beer downstairs at the bar two nights ago Thune certainly had seemed more than up to code, as they say, to me.

For the truth is I have endeavored to hate Thune in order to kill him, and I have failed. In hating him. Could I kill him without hating him? That is the question. To die, to sleep.


The brain fractured and refractured, tuned into the old texts, the native hue of resolution, to unpixelate the pixilated, to break back down into the crunch of prior numbers, to establish and then reverse and then finally deconstruct the binary, eleven-oh, eleven-oh-one, to take the smallest addressable element in a display device and render it even smaller, even more addressable, and thus and thus downward until its particulars dissolved and by that means to secret my way into Albanian warehouse #12 where the 10,000 screens glowing dull green like aquariums full of pixels await my de-powering long enough for them to disappear forever and thus deplete supply long enough for the Messiah Detectives to sell their pixel stock at prices high enough to finance new, as yet unknown stratagems of cultural upheaval and then, leaving the warehouse to make my way to dear Thune who, after all, with his poor scared face, was not ever ready for high definition, let alone low.

Nicholas Rombes has written for The Believer, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, 3:AM Magazine, and Filmmaker Magazine, where his Blue Velvet Project appeared over a one-year period. His screenplay “The Removals” is being directed by author Grace Krilanovich, to be released in 2015.

Image: Bellevue Fine Art (via Flickr)

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