DR. GENTLE AND I spent the first week of our allotted production month spitballing in my (our) Room.

 

“It could be a … ”

 

“No,” I’d say.

 

“What about a … ”

 

“No,” I’d say.

 

“Oh, I know … what if we had these two … ”

 

“No,” I’d say, growing frustrated with him, and by extension myself, since I’d so far failed to come up with anything better.

 

Room Service trays piled up around us and my bill at the Front Desk became one more thing I was refusing to think about.

 

Every day around 4, Dr. Gentle would ask if he could go to the health center and blow off steam, and I’d say, “No,” then regret it, then a few minutes later say, “Ok, fine.”

 

I’d watch English-dubbed Kurosawa films on pay-per-view while he was gone, one eye on the duffel bag of cash, half-expecting it to turn on me after so long unused. I could picture it climbing out of its shell and onto the bed, somehow wet, dripping green sludge, forcing me to eat my inability to spend it.

 

Dr. Gentle would come back sweating and happy and ask, “what did I miss?” and I’d point to the TV screen, where usually the first Kurosawa would just be ending, or the second ramping up.

 

*****

THIS FALLOW PERIOD COMES TO A FORCED END when Dalton calls on the Room’s landline and says, “The kids are getting picked over. If you want any, I’d suggest you get yourself to the school today.”

 

This gets through to me. “Why don’t you watch something,” I tell Dr. Gentle. “I’m going down to the health club to blow off steam.”

 

By the time I come back, flushed and grateful — does one ever regret going to the gym? — there’s no time to shower before the school closes, which Dalton has called back to inform Dr. Gentle is at 3pm sharp.

 

So, sweaty and spent, I grab a Powerbar from the kiosk in the lobby and we hurry across town.

 

The school’s abandoned, though whether this is just because it’s summer I can’t say. I’ve never thought about life in Dodge City in quite those terms before.

 

Nevertheless, we push our way inside, following the yellow paper signs on the wall that read CASTING with arrows pointing first to the left and then, after rounding a corner, to the right.

 

We come down a half-flight of stairs into a cavern with a more permanent sign outside that reads ART ROOM in English and Braille. Posters of waterlilies, haystacks, and Picasso, shirtless and feral in his studio, adorn the walls.

 

No one’s around, not even Dalton, whom I’d somehow expected to see here. No one but six glum children sitting on carpet squares inside a wire enclosure like bored llamas, surrounded by wrappers and crumbs.

 

They barely look up when we enter and begin to circle.

 

“So which one’s you?” Dr. Gentle asks, after we’ve seen them from every angle.

 

I stop short, clear my throat. “Excuse me?”

 

Dr. Gentle shrugs and does one of his self-deprecating smiles. “Nothing … I just meant, er, don’t you want to cast one of them as you and the others as your friends, so the movie can be about your years growing up in Dodge City?”

 

I can’t tell if Dr. Gentle actually thinks I’m from here or if he’s just having this idea now, but it’s the smartest thing either of us has said since this whole process began. It only seems obvious because it should have been.

 

“Oh, right. That’s what I meant,” I say. “That’s exactly what I had in mind.”

 

Dr. Gentle shrugs, seemingly happy for me to take credit. “How about this one? Were you a fat kid?”

 

He points to a fat kid in goldenrod corduroys and a purple shirt with a dinosaur egg hatching over its front pocket.

 

Was I a fat kid? I can barely remember. Then I think, yes. Yes, I guess I was. I must’ve been.

 

“Okay, you,” I point at the fat kid. He doesn’t respond until I walk directly into his line of vision and snap my fingers. Then he yawns and leaves his mouth open.

 

“What?” he says, his voice high and phlegmy.

 

“You, you’re cast. You’re gonna be in a movie! Isn’t that great?”

 

He yawns again and begins to pick his nose.

 

I feel myself losing my cool and decide to leave the area before I lash out. “Bag him up, Dr. Gentle.”

 

“What?” Dr. Gentle asks, pulling me back from the precipice of mania.

 

“I mean, here, give him this and tell him he’s hired.” I pull five 20’s from the duffel bag and hand them over.

 

It’s exciting to feel anger rise in me, approaching the edges of my body without going over. As if I were capable of the kind of hyper-masculine rage I’ve seen Blut Branson exhibit. As if, all along, that had been latent somewhere within me.

 

I wait by the rotten-smelling milk cooler, trying to remember my own school days, wherever they were, whatever the schoolhouse looked like then. Did I ever have art class?

 

 

*****

BACK AT THE HOTEL, we install the fat kid and the three others we’ve hired in the health center, abandoned except for a custodian refilling the water cooler who hurries away when he sees us.

 

“Okay,” Dr. Gentle says, hoisting the duffel bag with our cash onto his shoulder, appointing himself its de facto guardian. “So let’s start blocking out scenes.”

 

I try to think back on what in Amarcord moves me most. The deranged man in the tree, the peacock in the snow, the Grand Hotel the townspeople are never allowed to enter …

 

“Okay,” I tell the fat kid. “Let’s rehearse a scene where you’re in your room, dreading another indoors summer alone with your Primal Father, when you hear that your cousins will be visiting from California this year.”

 

Now I see the direction my film will take: it’ll be an origin story arguing for the legitimacy of my presence in this town, making it seem as though this were the site of my upbringing and gradual coming of age.

 

A propaganda film, in a sense.

 

There’s something I have to shore up here, some backstory for myself that I have to get clear on before going any farther into time, and this seems like the place to start. If I tell my story convincingly enough, I might come to believe it. And then I’ll know who I am.

 

And by knowing who I am, maybe I’ll finally know what to do.

 

*****

“LET’S FIND SOME CREEKBEDS,” I say after our third day of rehearsals, mustering Dr. Gentle and the crew out of the health center and into the parking lot behind the Hotel. “Some cornfields. A candy store. A comics store. The old train station where I used to sit on lazy Saturday afternoons and wait for the Silver Bullet to roll through. The rack where I used to wait salivating for the new month’s dime novels to be unloaded off the truck. The ones I read in a day and stuffed under my bed, into a paper-mass slowly growing into a lifelong imaginary friend. All the halcyon signifiers of a ruddy American childhood in some imagined Dodge City of the 50’s, gathered here at last, all in one place, projected across the drive-in screen for all to see.”

 

I stop to catch my breath, expecting something to happen. When nothing does, I clear my throat. “I’ll scout locations with the kids,” I say. “You go to Town Hall and get the equipment from Dalton. We’ll meet at the fairgrounds at seven.”

 

Dr. Gentle nods.

 

We depart, the fat kid who’ll play me followed by three others — two girls and a boy, who will play my cousin Anne, my cousin Denny, and my best friend Corinne, all names and roles I’ve made up on the spot.

 

*****

OVER THE NEXT TWO WEEKS, we film the canonical scenes, all set during the summer when my cousins and my best friend and I were all between 9 and 13, and we had the experiences that made us who we then became. In my case, this meant creeping out of the shadow of my Primal Father and into the loose but authentic skin of my future self, a sentient, autonomous being at large in an entropic universe.

 

The Rubicon Summer, after which none of us would be the same.

 

With Dr. Gentle behind the camera and managing sound, I direct the kids in poignant scenes of loss and discovery — they see their first dead body, crushed under a trailer at the back of the fairgrounds; their first sexually-entwined couple, on a bench we drag to the center of an otherwise abandoned clearing in the woods to one side of the park at the edge of town; they try alcohol in the lot behind Giant Chinese, sipping at a half-empty bottle of Jim Beam we plant in a trashcan for them to find; they discuss ghosts and eternal life while lying under the stars by the edge of the dry canal that runs through town (which we refill for the sake of the shoot); they meet a wildman with a permanent erection and glowing red eyes scuttling from rooftop to rooftop in the most trailer-trash part of the Outskirts; they find a suitcase full of money (all the 20’s from our production budget wrapped around stacks of 1’s) in the burned-out hulk of a Volkswagen and have to decide what to do, devolving into mutually deceitful factions when no consensus can be reached; and, finally, they skinny dip together in Meyers Pond, leaping into the air on the count of three to display their nascent genitalia for a split second, concretizing their heretofore fluid notions of sexual difference, the harsh reality of being one thing or the other.

 

At the end of the summer — the end of the Movie — they go to the circus one last time, walking past the rides in the early autumn twilight as the clowns and trapeze artists break down the tents and pull up the stakes, preparing to say goodbye.

 

When the new school year begins, my cousins will go back to Petaluma while my best friend Corinne is moving away with her parents on short notice. Even she barely knows why, or where. Somewhere up north … Misconsin, Winnesota … something like that, as we called them then.

 

Leaving me alone to grow up in Dodge City with only my memories of this one magical, melancholy summer to speed through middle and then high school in the House of my Father, and then into adulthood, through odd jobs and debt and uncertainty, eventually to take up the mantle of filmmaking, first as a fledgling, trying out techniques, searching for my voice … and then, finally, as the Greatest Director this town has ever known, a force of nature fit to take on the legacy of Blut Branson himself, to …

 

“Okay? Should I turn this off? Um … I’m turning it off now?”

 

I look up and see Dr. Gentle powering the camera and mics down. Still high on my Branson fantasy, part of me wants to scream at him to keep filming, but I resist. He’s done nothing wrong. The film’s wrapped. I’ve made my Amarcord, cementing myself into the Dodge City past as firmly as I ever will.

 

I nod. “Let’s get these kids some Dairy Queen then send them on their way.”

 

*****

THE DAY OF THE FILM FESTIVAL ARRIVES.

 

After a frantic week of editing in the A/V room at the school, helped by some old man whose name I never learned but whom I referred to privately as ‘my beloved first film teacher,‘ we have a rough cut ready to screen.

 

Unsurprisingly, it’s accepted into the Festival, along with everyone else’s.

 

The surprise is that it was selected to screen first. The Opening Night gala. Black Tie, Red Carpet.

 

Dr. Gentle and I dress up in rented tuxes and get to the drive-in early, ready to field interviews and pose for pictures, but aside from two reporters from the Dodge City Eagle who ask us where we get our ideas, there’s not much doing.

 

Many of the food and drink vendors from the last time we all gathered here are back, or here still. Everyone’s milling around, eating meat off dripping paper plates.

 

Then it’s time to begin. Dalton strides through the grass in front of the screen, takes a cordless mic from his suit pocket and says, “Alright folks, here’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for. The time for our collective mythology to be refreshed. The long draught of Branson’s absence is over. The dawn of the New Branson is nigh. Please enjoy.”

 

He turns off the mic, slips it back in his suit pocket, and walks back into the grass as my film starts up.

 

*****

FOR THE NEXT HOUR AND A HALF, I’m the closest thing Dodge City has to a genuine Fellini. My vision matters, my version of childhood touches the canon and begins to redefine in.

 

It’s an incredible rush. It’s like everything I’ve worked for all these years is coming to fruition. Like I’m passing through the narrow gateway between being no one and being someone.

 

I’m so deep inside this feeling that by the time I hear my name, I have the feeling that Dalton’s been calling it for a while.

 

I snap to, rolling to my feet when I sense that he’s motioning me into the circle of light beneath the screen.

 

When I get there, he claps me on the back and produces a second mic from his other suit pocket.

 

I take it and tap its head to test if it’s on. It is.

 

“Well, that was just extraordinary,” he says. “I had no idea you were from here.”

 

I nod, then say, a little timidly, “Yeah.”

 

“Well, I’m sure the audience has questions. Why don’t we cut right to the chase here and open it up to … ”

 

AS I REMEMBER IT, this is the exact instant when I look out on the crowd and see, instead of hundreds of rapt faces, a tall lurking madman in torn jeans and a cowboy shirt.

 

He’s like the raving king from Kurosawa’s Ran, his beard tattered and white, his eyes full of hate and hellish vision.

 

Branson, I think. Back from the Desert.

 

“H-h-hi Blut,” I stammer into the mic, just before he grabs it out of my hand and pushes me back into the screen.

 

The crowd is riveted on him like a field of sunflowers on the sun as he clears his throat and begins to speak. “You’re all probably wondering where I was. I know it’s been a while. I did time in Dead Sir. I went down in that swamp and did some thinking. I came to some conclusions. I got my strength back.”

 

Here he pulls off his cowboy shirt and his jeans, and then, naked, begins to peel his skin away, starting with his face and working his way down. It comes off like wet paper, piling up by his feet.

 

Beneath, he’s thin, strong, young, wearing a sleek tailored suit and white sneakers.

 

Probably younger than me, I think.

 

“I saw things down there,” he continues, his voice supple and fresh now. “On my film set in the Desert, and then down in Dead Sir. I got some things straight in my mind.”

 

He kicks the pulp of his old self into the grass. I can smell its porky reek from where I stand propped against the screen.

 

“I came to understand that what all of you here, tonight, consider to be the real Dodge City is nothing but a simulacrum. A Movie set at best. A version of someone’s memory of Dodge City that you’ve all tried to convince yourselves is real. I believed it too once, but no more. No! No, I tell you tonight. This is not the real Dodge City. This is the traitor’s Dodge City. The American Babylon.”

 

Here he turns to look at me, unrepressed violence in his eyes.

 

The return of the Primal Father, grown superpotent, I think, remembering my Freud, or my Lacan, whoever it was that said that way back when, in a book I read on a bus, or in a bus station, once. If you knock me down, you better kill me, says the Primal Father in a rare moment of weakness. Because if you don’t, I’ll come back twice as strong and three times as angry.

 

“No, good people. The Real Dodge City, the genuine one, the one you all deserve to live in, where life is good and full of meaning and still in its early days, is in the Deep Desert, past the horizon, past Dead Sir. Follow me and I will lead you there. Follow me now.”

 

With that he drops the mic and strides back through the grass.

 

As he goes, the people — my audience — rise entranced to their feet and fall in line behind him, their backs to the screen.

 

I watch them go, Dr. Gentle among them. He was only ever in it for the Desert travel, I think. He was never tied to me in particular.

 

Even the kids who played me and my cousins in the Movie follow. Even Dalton follows. Even Big Pharmakos, who I’m just now noticing in the crowd, follows.

 

Soon it’s just me and the pulp of Branson’s old body, left in the shadow of the empty drive-in screen.

 

*****

SO THIS IS MY KINGDOM, I think. My dominion.

 

I have won the mythic struggle, I tell myself, as I walk out of the drive-in field and into the empty lots and warehouses of Branson Entertainments.

 

I explore the sound stages, the mixing boards, the recording booths. The intake room where I was interviewed before my location-scouting mission to Kazakhstan.  The means of production are mine, I think. All of this, relinquished, left in my charge.

 

I am the Minotaur in the labyrinth.

 

Emboldened by this thought, I show myself into the office where Branson made all his directorial decisions, modeled after the glass enclosure where the dwarf-director in Mulholland Dr. sat in his wheelchair and commanded his goons.

 

I get in the wheelchair now — Branson-sized, naturally — and lean back, putting my lips to the microphone that wraps around the chair’s edge.

 

I clear my throat and whisper, “Play.”

 

The entire wall across from me lights up and begins to boil with static. Closing my eyes, I imagine I’m watching a Movie detailing my future here in Dodge City, just as my Amarcord detailed my past.

 

In this future Movie — entitled The Real Blut Branson — I am the great exalted visionary and Dodge City is full of my acolytes, the false Branson abandoned in the Desert, cast off as the charlatan he is and always was, my flock returned to me, my eminence unquestioned now, beyond usurpation.

 

I nod off. When I wake up, the Movie’s over. Yawning and stretching without leaving the chair, I clear my throat and whisper “Rewind.”

 

 

END VOL 2.

AFTER SWEATING THROUGH THE SPRING AND EARLY SUMMER in the Desert, Dr. Gentle and I emerge back at the edge of Dodge City, seemingly by default. How fast the summer goes, we might be thinking, if the heat weren’t so oppressive.

 

We shed the Sancho and Don guises we adopted in the Desert as we trudge past the Dead Mall and down the same streets I must have trudged up in order to leave Dodge City behind, however long ago that was.

 

I’d like to think my expectations aren’t unreasonable — I haven’t been imagining a red carpet rolled out to welcome me back — but the degree to which my return feels trivial is upsetting. It’s almost like I’ve made my way back to some other town, a simulacrum Dodge City in which my long absence is a complete non-issue.

 

Almost no one’s around, and the few people who are seem lost, feebly killing time.

 

By the time we’ve made it through the Outskirts and into the square, it feels like gravity has gone slack, the air pressure so low the buildings look like partially deflated balloons.

 

 

“We came to the wrong place?” Dr. Gentle asks, reading my unease. Then he looks back up the way we came, like maybe we could still arrange to end up somewhere else before nightfall, at the very least back in the Desert. I resent him for considering it.

 

“No, no. We’re here. It’s just … ” I trail off, uncertain how best to explain what Dodge City was, as opposed to what it appears to be now. The notion seems ephemeral. Maybe everything’s fine, or at least no worse than ever. Maybe Dodge City was never a stable entity. Maybe it’s just taken on a certain settledness in my mind, during the lonely months in the Desert.

 

“Let’s take a seat by the fountain here and think.”

 

As Dr. Gentle and I take our seats by the fountain, a mass of people processes past us, glum and silent, dragging their heels and hugging their sides.

 

Discomfited, I snap at Dr. Gentle, “Get us coffee!” It feels good to treat him as my assistant, even if that’s not exactly what he is.

 

He stands, looks around, then runs through the procession, in what I assume he hopes is the direction of a coffee shop.

 

While he’s away, I sit by the fountain and remember the time — at some point in what I’ll simply call the past, since I have no way of saying if it was last year, or three years ago, or five — when the water crackled with the molten celluloid of Ghost Porn.

 

I was young then, I think, squirming where I sit, trying to make myself feel like I felt then.

 

Dr. Gentle returns with two coffees and a grease-spotted white bag, from which he removes a scone and hands me half.

 

“You didn’t get two?”

 

His jaw clacks open and he blushes. I’m being mean now. I should stop.

 

“In the coffee shop over there … ?” he begins, tentatively.

 

I nod for him to continue, chewing my scone half.

 

“In the coffee shop over there, I heard some guys talking about a film festival. ‘The Dodge City Film Festival’s back on ,’ I heard them say.”

 

The Dodge City Film Festival. I’ve heard Big Pharmakos mention it in the context of the Dodge City Golden Age — the 30’s? The 50’s? I’ve never been sure — but never as a real event, present in real time.

 

“Are you sure?”

 

He nods. “It kicks off at dusk. Everyone’s processing out to the Drive-in now.”

 

“The Drive-in?” This, too, would seem to belong to the Dodge City Golden Age. I’ve always pictured it as a bygone thing, a blank screen in a weedy field on the edge of the Branson Entertainments lot.

 

“Should I get tickets?” Dr. Gentle asks.

 

I look up, realizing I’ve burned my eyes on the sunset, scanning it for signs of the Golden Age. I squint and the atmosphere around me feels soft and warm, like partly-melted wax, a mold of a place I’m now receding into. If, in this version of Dodge City, the Film Festival’s back on, I’m thinking, let’s go.

 

“Yeah,” I say, when I remember that Dr. Gentle can’t hear my thoughts. “Get us tickets.”

 

*****

TICKETS IN HAND, Dr. Gentle and I process with what seems like the entire rest of the Dodge City population out to Branson Entertainments, the now-abandoned military complex where Blut Branson made all his films before he died and/or disappeared.

 

Concession stands are set up just outside the gate. Barbecues sizzle with racks of ribs and thick steaks crusted in salt, surrounded by beer trucks and cotton candy stations and rows of porta-potties.

 

Dr. Gentle hands over our tickets and we make our way in, fighting for lawn space between folding chairs and largish encampments of tarps, tents, and trailers.

 

The lights go down in the sense of night falling, and the screen fills with a face I just barely recognize:

 

Professor Dalton looks older, though his voice is still robust. “Good people of Dodge City. It is my great pleasure and honor to welcome you all to the first night of the Dodge City Film Festival. It’s been a long hiatus since the last one, but as of tonight we are, I’m thrilled to report, back in business. Enjoy the show!”

 

He vanishes as the screen flickers and crackles and the main event begins:

 

Fellini’s Amarcord, that sublime vision of life in early Fascist Rimini, with its mix of the sensual and the melancholy, the carnal and the divine, the 42-year-old man-child in the tree, throwing stones at his family and screaming “I want a woman!!”

 

*****

I’M SO ENTRANCED IT TAKES A WHILE to notice when it’s over and Professor Dalton’s face is back onscreen. At first, I conflate him with the film’s lascivious but charming elderly narrator. I wonder how Fellini knew Dalton, I catch myself thinking.

 

“It is my great hope that you all enjoyed the film. It is, without a doubt, my all-time favorite.” He dries his eyes. “However, you are assembled here tonight for a purpose beyond that of entertainment, however sublime said entertainment may be. As you are all doubtlessly aware, a foundation-crisis has occurred in the order of the Dodge City Film Industry.”

 

This is the last thing we want to hear, vulnerable as we all still are to the effects of Fellini. Probably the exact reason Dalton chose to tell us this now, I think.

 

“Blut Branson, longtime scion of our Film Industry and closest thing to a culture-hero this town has ever had, is gone.” Dalton’s face is nearly popping off the screen now, tears streaming down his cheeks. “Dead, disappeared, abdicated … who can say? All we can say for sure is that he is, by this point, unlikely to return.

 

“So, steps must be taken. The Dodge City Film Festival, which commences tonight, is a joyous occasion, but it is not only that. This year, it must be more. Much more. It is to be a competition. A vetting of visionaries. A test to see who among you, with ample funding and resources, can produce a film that convincingly mythologizes our origins, as Fellini has done to such an overwhelming degree with Amarcord.”

 

I hear bodies shifting in the badly mowed grass around me, some kissing like teenagers, others scooting closer to the screen.

 

“Whoever produces the most effective filmed testament to life as it was during the Dodge City Golden Age will be crowned the New Branson, and elected culture-hero for life. He or she will be put in full control of Branson Entertainments, and the full attention of Dodge City will be upon him or her.

 

“Our folk religion will reorient itself around you. A new Golden Age will begin.”

 

He stops to clear his throat, as do I. It’s a lot to process.

 

“You will all receive a duffel bag full of cash for production expenses on your way out. Furthermore, the Dodge City schoolchildren will be at your full disposal, should you wish to recreate scenes from your childhood starring them.”

 

Here he pauses to gesture from the screen at a bullpen full of children in the grass behind us. We turn to regard them, smashed together like asylum seekers at a ferry launch. “Believe me, with the funds we’re sinking into this project, there’s no keeping the schools open.

 

“It’s a tall order, but, at this point, the void in our spirit-life must be filled. May the best Director win! I will see you all back here for the final screening a month from now.”

 

With that, his image boils away and the Drive-in screen goes black.

 

We all sit there, stunned in the cricket and mosquito buzz, until the real Dalton, microscopic compared to his filmed counterpart, shouts “Alright folks!”

 

We look over and see him standing at the entrance, flanked by bodyguards.

 

Dr. Gentle gets to his feet and takes my hand, helping me up. When we pass the entrance, Dalton pries open two duffel bags, showing us the cash inside before zipping them up and handing them over.

 

“Spend it wisely,” he says, as we shuffle past and he picks up the next two, for the people behind us.

 

*****

THE NEXT ORDER OF BUSINESS IS TO CHECK BACK INTO THE HOTEL.

 

It’s strangely emotional, approaching the Front Desk and asking for my old Room, like the very first time I drifted into Dodge City.

 

“Do you mind waiting over there by the fishtank?” I ask Dr. Gentle, feeling myself tear up as I revisit that long-ago morning.

 

“He’s gonna have to pay too,” says the desk clerk. “It’s too late to sneak him in.”

 

I nod. “That’s not the problem,” I say, handing her my credit card. “I just … I just …”

 

She seems to understand. The rest of the transaction goes smoothly and soon, just like the very first time, the porter has shown me (us) to my (our) Room.

 

*****

WHEN WE’VE SETTLED IN, me in my old bed and Dr. Gentle in a child-sized cot the porter wheeled out of storage for him, we pour ourselves whiskeys from the minibar and get down to business.

 

“Okay,” says Dr. Gentle, pen and legal pad open on his lap. “Got any ideas?”

I’D LIKE TO BELIEVE I’ve spent enough time in the Deserts around Dodge City to realize that, while they’ve never fully consumed me, they’ve also never spit me out as I was. In fact, they’ve never spit me out at all until I’ve consented to, in some non-trivial capacity, change.

 

So the past two months of Desert travel with Dr. Gentle have been sufficient to knock loose in me the following revelation, qua non-trivial change: why not rejigger the stakes so that, by the time we make it back to Dodge City, I’ve become Blut Branson and Dr. Gentle has become me?

 

I mean, given that I can’t return as myself, why not return as someone better?

 

As this thought takes shape and substance within me, I begin to draft a treatment for what I hope will be my first film as Blut Branson, now that the burden of being me has evaporated, or, to be more precise, has been shunted, however unwittingly, onto Dr. Gentle.

 

Rather than counting for nothing, my earlier, aborted film project will, in this new scheme of things, count as a sacrifice to the old power structure — so that, now, with the Real (and I should instead start saying ‘Old’) Blut Branson busy Directing what I’d once hoped would be my first feature — the one he stole from me on the set I was forced to abandon two months ago — I see no reason not to unburden myself further by stepping in here as the Real Blut Branson, the one and only, at least until the Old One comes back and tries to fight me for his name.

 

So until then, call me Blut.

 

“Okay, tell me your life story,” I think I hear Dr. Gentle say at this exact moment, though I admit I may be conjuring this out of him, or simply misreporting what I wish I’d heard.

 

Nevertheless, taking this as an invitation to talk through my still-developing concept for the film I’m tentatively calling ‘The Real Blut Branson’ — which, if completed, will stand as my actual first film as well as a sort of mythic origin story for the person I wish I were and am looking for the courage to pretend I am — I pick up in speech where my thoughts are now leaving off:

 

“Diagnosed with a terminal illness,” I begin, “Blut Branson (played by me) retreats to a hospice set up in his childhood home, deep in the heart of Dodge City. Here, he decides it’s time to reveal the full truth about himself, the 3% that he’s so far left out of his harrowingly autobiographical filmography: for his final film, he’ll Direct an entirely unfabricated biopic about himself, shot on DV in the most straightforward possible style, a style-without-style, if you will, revealing his true origins, the agony of his early years, his fraught, ambivalent reaction to fame, and his subsequent reclusion and even more subsequent reemergence.

 

“There are, in short, certain things he’s determined not to take to the grave. But first he has to choose who will play him in this film-within-the-film, as he’s far too sick to both Direct and play himself at the same time, though as a younger man you’d better believe he would have in a heartbeat.

 

“As it turns out, Dodge City is full of Blut impersonators … indeed, his influence is so pervasive that every citizen is an impersonator to one degree or another, many of them unwittingly.

 

“Some would even go so far as to claim that all aspects of Dodge City life — going to school, going to work, going shopping, coming home — are, in their own ways, forms of Branson impersonation, if by ‘impersonation’ one also means ‘worship.’ He has cast such a voluminous shadow over the people of Dodge City that there is no means of existing there outside of it. So the people of Dodge City are, in this sense, more a fungal than a vegetal race, living as they do always in Branson’s fertile dark.”

 

“Why not call the town Branson then?” I think I hear Dr. Gentle ask.

 

“Because there already is a Branson, and it’s a fairly specific place. Anyway, as I was saying, the 3% of the truth that hasn’t yet been revealed by his films is the only margin of creativity these impersonators are given — the only window through which they might insert their own subjectivities and inhabit his story as actors, rather than audience members. Without this window, impersonation would be mere recapitulation, sterile and automatic.”

 

Dehydration is making it hard to go on speaking at this rate, but I’ll try.

 

“Now that his days are numbered, however, Blut decides to close this gap by setting the record fully straight. To preclude all speculation once he’s gone by leaving behind a filmed testament so canonical it will be impossible to question any aspect of his life once it is no longer, in the conventional sense, underway.

 

“In short,” I slow down here, making sure Dr. Gentle receives the full point of what I’m trying to say, “Blut Branson wants to make it so that only a dogmatic impersonator can take his place after he dies, weeding out any upstarts who might put their own spin on his legacy in the vast Wild West of the future.”

 

*****

WE TRUDGE ONWARD in silence while I lick my teeth, trying to wet them enough to go on talking. Eventually, I’m as ready as I’ll ever be:

 

“So it falls to Blut to select an official impersonator to vest with his legacy, since the biopic he’s making will end with this impersonator — played by you in the film I’m planning to make, Dr. Gentle — accepting the burden of being ‘The Real Blut Branson,’ taking a solemn oath to continue the master’s filmmaking career and thus, in essence, deny that the Old Blut ever died.

 

“The early scenes of my film,” I continue, “will detail the process by which Blut winnows his impersonator from a horde of applicants, Directing each one in a few sample scenes from his life — ‘First Kiss,’ ‘Going Away to Film School,’ ‘First Job Interview’ — trying to determine which vessel he ought best to reveal the full truth about himself and then live on through.

 

“But soon he finds that those impersonators who most clearly bear the traits that make him who he is — self-pity, melancholia, past-hauntedness, loneliness, shyness, luridness, sleaze — are so distasteful, when viewed in the harsh of light of the audition room (the kitchen of his childhood home/hospice), that he can’t bear to cast any of them.

 

“He can’t handle the truth,” Dr. Gentle says.

 

I go on without acknowledging this. “Just as he’s about to vanish entirely into despair, Blut agrees to see one last audition. All or nothing. The atmosphere inside the hospice is like that scene in Steve McQueen’s Hunger, if you remember, where one guy comes into the nursing home and shoots the other guy in the face while he’s visiting his mother, except in this case the tension is palpable from the start of the scene rather than coming as a surprise at the end, as it does in the film. And, of course, Branson’s hospice, as I’ve said, is set up in his childhood home, rather than in a nursing home in Belfast, so … actually, this isn’t like that, sorry.

 

“All I mean,” I’m getting flustered here, as I do when I feel myself coming to the point, “is that Blut was literally at death’s door, or in death’s living room anyway, when you walked in.”

 

“Me?” Dr. Gentle seems disturbed, like he’s heard me talking all this time without grasping any of what I’ve said.

 

I nod. “Right. Because you’re going to play the impersonator who derails Blut’s plan to cast himself with an authentic lookalike. You’re the proverbial breath of fresh air in this story. The mystery element that saves it from predictability and stagnation.”

 

Dr. Gentle looks at me warily.

 

“Can I go on?”

 

He nods.

 

“So, as he’s dying, Blut (played by me) meets one final impersonator (played by you). He’s immediately moved by this impersonator’s grace, his unthinking self-confidence, his seeming immunity to introspection and looping neurosis. Most of all, he’s moved by the impersonator’s seeming imperviousness, even obliviousness, to the whole audition process. This impersonator barely seems to know that he’s here with hopes of being cast in a film, let alone one revealing the Truth about Blut Branson.

 

“The audition lasts less than 5 minutes. Despite the total lack of resemblance and the disapproval of his producers, Blut chooses this last impersonator in a fit of whimsy the hospice nurses wouldn’t have imagined he still had in him. He casts you, Dr. Gentle, as the Real Blut Branson.”

 

As I describe this process, imagining myself playing the dying Blut, the volume of my voice fades in my ears as the volume of my thinking takes over: there’s something about you, Dr. Gentle ... something about you that makes me want to cast you … and that thing is that you don’t know who the Real Blut Branson is, nor even the 97% real one … you come from outside that whole paradigm, from some other town, or no town at all … you’re living proof that there is an outside, that the Dodge-City-Mindset isn’t the only one.

 

Which is why, I catch myself continuing, it is my duty to rope you in. To quash your difference by engraving your face onto a film created squarely within the confines of the Dodge City Film Industry … thereby turning your innocence into yet another form of Branson-worship, rather than allowing it to go on existing as some external, unaffiliated thing.

 

*****

“Is there more?” Dr. Gentle asks, after what I gather has been an overlong silence.

 

I shudder and come back to myself, realizing I’d rather not go on because I no longer like the direction my thoughts are headed. But Dr. Gentle’s so expectant I can’t leave him hanging.

 

“Yeah,” I say. “Now, the film goes off in a new direction. No longer will Blut close the 3% window of mystery on his life before dying. Rather, his plan is to open it further. To die with, ideally, 100% mystery about his true nature — stretched as it will be between the Blut people think they know and the Blut-impersonator they will see onscreen — firmly in place. So the people of Dodge City will never know for sure what kind of soul, if any, their idol and guiding light really had.

 

“From here, the film details the process by which Blut prepares to hand over his legacy to his successor, high on the fantasy of being transformed into a totally other type of man, one far less hobbled by doubt, while also regretting that the conditions which have made his art possible will cease to obtain if he undergoes this transformation: the actual font of his genius will run dry if he entrusts its safekeeping to you, no offense, Dr. Gentle.

 

“All this time, remember, his illness is progressing, clouding his judgment and further blurring the already-blurry boundaries between past and present. So he doubles down inside his childhood home/hospice, determined to Direct the biopic and then die without ever going outside again. He’s even designed a burial plot for himself deep in his winter coat closet, beside the ashes of his beloved pug Sparky.

 

“So, Directing from his childhood bed — itself a poignant symbol given all the times he was sick in this bed as a child without its being, as it is now, his deathbed — he retells his life as if he’d been you, Dr. Gentle, all along. He films scenes from every stage of his childhood, adolescence, and young manhood, all within this same house, or on sets built to resemble other houses while still being situated within this one. In the process, he begins to forget that this mild-mannered cipher isn’t really him.

 

“In his last days, he enters a kind of third-person trance, in which he believes he’s watching himself from a disembodied outside perspective. The illness makes his whole body numb, so he can’t feel anything except what he imagines his impersonator feels. He’s like Dr. Mabuse Directing sleepwalkers from his asylum, if you see what I mean, Dr. Gentle, except in this case he’s Directing you.

 

“Meanwhile, on the streets of Dodge City, the other impersonators celebrate the final days of Blut’s myth in one last Carnival-style pageant before the full truth is revealed (as they still believe it will be) through the biopic’s broadcast, to which a ticker on every TV channel steadily counts down. When this happens, the impersonators plan to march en masse into the Desert, alone and unwanted, sundered from their lone source of relevance and replenishment, believing that a Dark Age will then overtake Dodge City, one in which all impersonation will have been reduced to rote blasphemy.

 

Not one of them suspects that the actual film will have the opposite effect.

 

“But perhaps,” I say, looking at Dr. Gentle again, sweat I can’t afford to lose pouring off me, “you, as the chosen impersonator, have your own mysterious agenda. Since you doesn’t even know who Blut is, perhaps you have some other reason for trying to impersonate this dying man to whom you bear no resemblance. I mean, why did you show up at that audition, really, if you didn’t know what it was for?”

 

“What audition?”

 

“Maybe it’s more than a neutral favor you intend to pay your symbolic father, maybe what you really want is to … ” I catch myself rambling worse than usual here and think I know why: I’ve slipped into talking about me and the Old Blut, rather than the new me-as-Blut and Dr. Gentle-as-me.

 

The conversation has glitched back to its origin, like a bowling ball that the reversion machine has spit back out at the start of the next round.

 

*****

I KIND OF LOSE IT HERE.

 

“At the very end, as it’s all going dark,” I hear myself say, feigning composure, “with the faux biopic completed and about to air, Blut can’t stand to see the source of his art run dry: he has to somehow torment or terrify this impersonator into finding a wellspring of insecurity within himself, before it’s too late.

 

“Otherwise there will be no more Branson films and Dodge City will enter a Secular Age for which, let me tell you, it’s far from ready.

 

“The idea of replacing himself with a cheery, well-adjusted avatar, which had until recently seemed so compelling, now seems a fate worse than death. So, fighting through the delirium, coughing up any painkillers the nurses try to feed him, Blut calls his crew back together and demands the film be reshot.

 

“It doesn’t matter how. All that matters, Blut thinks, is that he die while the film is still in progress, so that its release will forever after bear the tag Uncompleted Final Masterpiece, thus leaving it open to specious interpretation and Internet whinging, as all the key final masterpieces seem inevitably to end up being, many to their benefit.

 

I feel myself reanimating the Old Blut as I speak, suddenly doing all I can to avoid killing him, even in speech, even in thought.

 

“Overall, my film’s about the perverse desire to have it both ways: to be both well-adjusted and also a great artist with the kind of warped personal language that only develops through a lifetime of alienation. You know? And, on top of all that, to be both alive and dead. To overthrow the whole paradigm that forces us to choose.”

 

Now I’m panting, my mouth drier than the cobblestones of Pompeii, my eyes trying to water and finding it harder than it sounds. The thing I have to make sure never to stop asking myself, I think without saying it, is how much do I really want Blut Branson dead?

 

Given the chance — which it’s looking like I have in this case been given — am I really ready to go on without him, taking over the full burden of the Dodge City Film Industry, with all that that presumably entails?

 

What scares me more than I care to admit is the possibility that my ambivalence about killing him comes not from an emotional quirk in my own nature, but rather, somehow, from Blut himself — as if he were Directing me from afar, forcing my thoughts to conform to his even as I believe my intention is to come, finally, into my own.

 

“How free from him can we ever really be?” I hear myself ask, thinking, he’s like some vengeful woken spirit rushing across the Desert to silence me.

 

Dr. Gentle stops, eyes filling with mellow concern. “Free from whom?” He looks up at the sky, like it’s God I mean. I think I know what his answer in that case would be.

 

*****

SOON AFTER this break in the conversation, a distant skyline comes into focus.

 

As we keep our pace up, it only grows closer.

 

The Desert is nothing but a distance that exists for as long as it takes to reach a certain decision, after which the next location rolls out to take its place, demanding only — and this is no small thing — that one do whatever one spent one’s time in the Desert deciding to do.

 

Now the skyline resolves, predictably, into that of Dodge City, and soon enough we’re in its Outskirts, myself and Dr. Gentle, Don and Sancho, a Branson impersonator and his understudy, or the Real Blut Branson and his impersonator.

 

I can see the whole town unfurling around us, ready to serve as the set for the shoot of the film still tentatively entitled The Real Blut Branson, my first mature Directing gig, assuming I find it within me to step up to the plate and see it through, whatever the psychic consequences may be.

 

“The first order of business,” I tell Dr. Gentle, treating him for the time being simply as my assistant, “is to build a scale replica of my childhood home so I can cozy up in bed there and begin to pretend I’m dying.”

THERE’S NO QUESTION THAT THE TIME TO ABANDON WHAT I’D BRIEFLY REFERRED TO AS “MY FILM SET” HAS ARRIVED. Even if Blut Branson hadn’t commandeered it quite so aggressively, the simple fact of his presence would in short order have goaded me into leaving.

 

So here I go.

 

Head hung, I march into the distance, leaving him to make whatever he will of the set I’d once hoped would serve as the locus of my feature film debut.

 

Ashamed, as usual, of my cowardice, I decide to cross the entire desert. If I make it to the far side, I figure I’ll be glad to emerge into whatever place happens to be there.

 

All I know is I’m not going back to Dodge City, at least not willingly.

 

Maybe, I think, as the last lights of Branson’s set vanish behind me, I’ll manage to leave this part of the country for good, thereby setting a new adventure in motion … one that, I hope, will have little or nothing to do with the Dodge City Film Industry.

 

Or any film industry at all. Those days are — if I have any say in the matter — well and truly behind me.

 

I walk in a straight line for what feels like longer than all night, but there’s no shift in the dark overhead. I’m hoping this isn’t the kind of desert where it’s night all the time.

 

*****

TIME TO SLEEP. I find a declivity in the sand and settle into it, staring up at a sliver of moon.

 

As soon as my eyes droop shut, I feel a pair of hands tugging at my sleeve. I keep my eyes closed, hoping it’ll go away if I don’t acknowledge it. But this only works in certain stories I’ve read, and maybe in other parts of the country, in other deserts.

 

Not here. My sleeve goes on being tugged until I open my eyes.

 

When I do, I see a mild-looking, grey-haired man wearing a headlamp. It illuminates his features like the text on a page under a flashlight. ‘Mild through and through’ is my read on him — ‘a  man either with no malice whatsoever in his system, or with malice so deeply buried and so well integrated it casts no shadow on his surface.’

 

Defenseless as I am, I decide to assume the former.

 

“Dr. Gentle.” He extends his hand. I take it and he tries to pull me up, but he’s too weak. I end up pulling him down instead. I close my eyes against his headlamp’s glare and crawl out from under him, get to my feet, and then help him to his.

 

When we’re both standing, he laughs and adjusts his headlamp. “Phew,” he says. “For a minute there, I lost myself.”

 

I tell him not to worry, though I can’t say he’s made a heroic first impression.

 

“Look.” He points his headlamp at a tethered donkey, which moans at the dawning awareness that soon it will be responsible for two riders.

 

Though I’d like to ask where he’s headed and make a show of considering whether to travel there with him, I’m not exactly in a position to act like I have a route of my own mapped out.

 

So I climb aboard, behind Dr. Gentle, and off we go, our donkey wheezing pitifully beneath us, one of us Sancho to the other’s Quixote, though I can’t yet say which is which.

 

*****

AS WE SLOG ONWARD, the sun starts to rise in the distance. I have the suspicion that it isn’t cresting the horizon on its way toward overtaking the sky, as usual, but rather that we’re approaching a country where it’s always day, leaving the one where it’s always night behind.

 

I decide to keep this suspicion to myself.

 

“So, Dr. Gentle,” I say, hoping to change the subject, “what exactly’s your deal?”

 

“Well,” he begins, turning around on the donkey to face me, “people around here call me the Gentile Cronenberg.”

 

Around where? I think. But I just raise my eyebrows, encouraging him to go on.

 

“As you likely know,” he goes on, “all souls are divided at birth between Jewish and Gentile aspects. These are not, as has been popularly assumed, singular properties that manifest in individuals to the exclusion of the other. At least not at first. Before a soul reaches maturity, there is a pitched battle between these two manifestations. Only one can achieve dominance.”

 

“And the other?”

 

His face slackens under a weight of sadness. “The other, well, exists in a sort of under-expressed limbo. A half-life, you might say. A living byproduct of the process by which a soul becomes most fully what it is.”

 

“So this byproduct of the soul becomes another person?”

 

Dr. Gentle nods. “Correct. A new person is born, sometimes in adulthood, once the Jew/Gentile battle, within a given soul, has reached its conclusion.”

 

“So in your case …”

 

“In my case, the battle was won, in no uncertain terms, by the illustrious Jewish filmmaker David Cronenberg. I, well … I’m what’s left. The runoff. The Gentile Cronenberg. A small-sized person, and I don’t mind saying it. I was born in my mid-thirties as a Youth Pastor named Dr. Gentle. With no soul of my own to speak of, I’ve pledged my years on this earth to shepherding the souls of others across this vast desert.”

 

He sighs and looks me over for understanding, which I feign.

 

“I content myself in the knowledge that I am not as badly off as the Jewish David Lynch. Now there is truly a man with nothing to live for.”

 

I nod, beginning to feel my feigned understanding harden into something real. Or maybe it’s just the look on my face that’s hardening.

 

 

“Are we almost there?” I ask.

 

“Where?” Dr. Gentle looks at me with extremely concerned eyes.

 

I shrug. “I’d assumed there was somewhere we were going.”

 

He turns back and grips the donkey’s reins and mutters, “They always do.”

ALL FIGURES WE EVENTUALLY COME TO REGARD AS GREAT have an origin story, as they do not, to the best of my knowledge, walk fully formed out of nowhere, even if, in the retrospect of their greatness, they often appear to have.

 

Just before my negotiations with Blut Branson at the peripheries of the Movie set in the Desert reach the point of violence, he takes me aside and tells me his.

 

“Believe it or not,” he begins, immediately inducing me to doubt whatever he plans to say, “I was once a regular guy like you.”

 

“Years before your time, decades really, Dodge City was a lot like it is now. They say nothing lasts forever, but there’s an inertia to towns like this that makes you wonder. In any case, all those years ago, I found myself hanging around here, not doing much of anything. As I say, a lot like you.”

 

I open my mouth to speak up for myself, but he continues before I can.

 

“I had dreams, sure, but I was fairly certain they’d die inside me, unhatched like slowly rotting eggs. I saw no other fate for dreams. Thus, I felt no real guilt about letting mine go soft like those of my forefathers.

 

“But something happened. As I believe is often the case with Great Men like myself, an event outside the purview of my Will provided the impetus that set me on my course. Or, more accurately, the true extent of my Will first manifested from a source outside my body.

 

“A great Melancholy came over Dodge City. Over the course of one summer – this must have been 1972 or ’73, as I remember a copy of Ballard’s Crash making waves among my several literate friends and me – all of our small, private melancholies merged. Through a crack in the dreamspace or perhaps in the literal sky, the idea began to overwhelm us that we were not hovering in separate melancholic spheres, like balloons dispersing above a parade of the living, but rather joined beneath a banner of Universal Melancholy. A Power outside ourselves, we thought, feeling fear and relief merge into a feeling without a name. Of course, I did not yet know that Power was Me.

 

“Soon, by the logic that thought tends inevitably toward action, a physical banner was hung by a crew of volunteers. Stretching across Main Street, it read WE ARE SAD.

 

“Summer wore on, June’s soothing warmth yielding to July’s oppressive heat, and this Universal Melancholy took on a more definite form: as we all sat together in the square, sweltering and trying to gather our thoughts under that banner, we realized what it was: the sadness of parting. The awareness that we would all, one day, have to say goodbye. On this day, whenever it came, we would see one another for the last time. Assuming we all died or drifted apart one by one, these partings would be serial, ongoing, unresolvable. There could never, it seemed to us in those gruesomely hot July and then August afternoons, be an end to our Melancholy. There would, much to the contrary, likely come a period when we would have to part with someone we loved almost daily.

 

“As we returned home each night to twist and shiver in our sheets, we thought, when will the day come after which I will never see my friends again? Has it come already? Was today the day and so my terminal aloneness is now?

 

“Eventually, the not-knowing grew so profound that a new fixation took hold of us, every bit as forcefully as the Melancholy had: as summer gave way to autumn, we thought, with no room for negotiation, Let’s just leave.

 

“Just leave?” I ask, realizing I haven’t gotten a word in this whole time. It’s scary how overpowering Branson’s voice can be: I hadn’t, until just now, even managed to think in my own.

 

Branson nods, snarling slightly at the interruption. “Just leave. We decided that all of us, one day in September, would simply walk out of town, dispersing into the Desert, never to meet again. We wrote a Declaration stating as much, and sealed it in a vault in the Records Room of the Town Hall. Packing nothing, we’d decided to shake hands in the town square and take our leave. And that’d be it, no more fear of the unknown future moment when this leave-taking would have to occur. We’d realized we had no power to stave it off, but we did have the power to determine its location in time, and we’d resolved to use that power to make it happen now.”

 

“So you did?” I’m determined to speak more, for fear that otherwise Branson will entirely erase me from the interaction, nullifying any future chance I might have to assert myself as the Director of the Movie whose crew is frozen just beyond where we’re sitting, like the Movie itself has been paused.

 

“One morning in September, we did exactly what we said we were going to do. We left the town behind, chanting Goodbye, Goodbye, Goodbye as we marched under the WE ARE SAD banner, never to congregate beneath it again. For a few minutes, we remained visible to one another, but after each walking a mile in our own direction, we’d dispersed to the point where we were alone in the Desert. No one was on the same trajectory as anyone else. The worst had come to pass, and here we still were … or, I should say, here I still was, since the others were well and truly gone.”

 

He pauses here, looking over at me, evincing, if I’m not mistaken, relief at finding himself less alone than he was in the story he’s telling. A rare moment of vulnerability, quickly suppressed.

 

“But that wasn’t the end?”

 

He shakes his head. “It wasn’t even the beginning.”

 

*****

“I WANDERED THAT DESERT for what felt like and may well have been 20 years,” Branson continues, after making me wait so long I fear the silence may be permanent.

 

“Eating snakes and tiny rat-like mammals, drinking from cacti and the occasional standing pond, I wandered and thought, bedding down in caves or under the open sky. For the first 10 years, I thought about what my life had been. I assumed it was going to end in the Desert, so I thought back on what I’d done and seen – basically, nothing. I, like you, had led a wasted life, not even a flash in the pan.

 

“But then, somewhere around year 11, the balance shifted. I realized – in what you call a Moment of Revelation – that I wasn’t going to die out there. Not yet. If I’d survived that long, I figured, I was bound to survive longer. Without my having meant for it to, my life in the Desert had become sustainable. I was still young, I realized; time was still on my side.

 

“So, for the next 10 years, I turned my thoughts to the future. I stopped asking myself Which hole would you like to die in? and started asking, What would you like to do with all the time you have left? It was a curse and a blessing, as they say, to be fraught with a future I hadn’t planned on having to account for.

 

“As the years wore on, I started thinking about Movies. All my memories of my youth and upbringing in Dodge City, and of the great Melancholy that had come over us all, took on a cinematic dimension. I started to think, All of that … all of what happened … what was it all if not a Movie?

 

From here, it was only a short leap to the crucial thought: “And if it was all a Movie, who Directed it if not Me?”

 

 

He pauses again, staring off into the Desert where we’re sitting, which I realize is the same Desert he wandered through all those years ago, coming to the decision that set him on the path whose conclusion he’s by now almost reached. All things that seem far away are actually nearby, I think. Everything’s superimposed. I open my mouth, but he continues before I work up the courage to say it.

 

“So, for the next 10 years, I wandered deeper into the Desert, growing more and more charged with ambition. An ambition I’d previously refused to admit to myself I now admitted freely, proudly even, feeling it swell in my gut as I shouted at the night sky. “Nothing can stop me from becoming what I’ve decided to become, because if anything could, it would have by now,” I shouted.

 

“Like so, in the spring of 1995, I arrived in a town. After all those years of sand and dust, I crossed a line out of nowhere and into somewhere. It seemed at once miraculous and inevitable, like I’d simply reached the point I’d been approaching all along. Like I’d conjured this town through pure force of mind, in my first conscious Act of Direction, but also that the conjuring was no less predetermined than God’s conjuring of the universe.”

 

I clear my throat, this time forcing myself past fear. “And the town you reached was Dodge City?”

 

Branson smiles, eying me like I’m an intelligent 5-year-old. “Well, at first I wasn’t sure. I walked through a town that looked familiar, catching the eyes of people who looked familiar too, though it was hard to tell for sure. I had been so fundamentally changed by my years in the Desert that, even if it was Dodge City, it no longer struck me in the same way.”

 

“What was the difference?”

 

“Well, for one thing, the banner had fallen down. And now I saw potential where before I’d seen only stagnation. All these people, whether they were the old population likewise returned from the Desert or a new population who’d filled the void we left behind, looked at me with reverence, awe. All modesty aside, I could feel myself emitting a mythic charge. They knew they were products of my mind, and thus slaves to my Vision. Alive solely to play the roles I cast them in.

 

“I was the Man Returned. Resurrected. These people looked at me like a man out of Scripture, at last incarnated in Flesh rather than merely in Word, grown wise and courageous enough to take my stand. Here He is … they thought, and I thought, Yes, here I am.

 

“And like so you took control of Dodge City?”

 

Branson smiles again. “I didn’t have to. I was Dodge City, and Dodge City was Me. Everything and everyone there lives by the Grace of Me.”

 

He doesn’t add ‘including you,’ but I can tell he knows it’s what I’m thinking.

 

 

“Those people were mine. Absolutely mine. I began work on my first Movie that day. With an entire town’s worth of free labor, production went fast. Before long, Branson Entertainments was up and running, an enterprise fully coterminous with the Dodge City Film Industry. Soon we had our first Movie in the can, playing on every screen in town. Then our second, then …”

 

“Then the rest was history,” I say, wondering if I’m any more capable of resisting the power of the Great Man before me than those original stunned townsfolk were. And if I’m not, I wonder what’s left … I wonder if maybe I too should disappear into the Desert, ready to die there unless fate intercedes.

 

Maybe what worked for him will work for me.

 

Next time I look up, Branson’s gone, setting up a shot on the Movie set that I realize is now unambiguously his, as it always has been.

I’VE SPENT THE PAST TWO MONTHS living in the actual-size replica of the Hotel in the fetus shantytown — specifically inside the actual-size replica Room that corresponds to my original Room in Dodge City, which somehow both exacerbates and alleviates whatever homesickness I might be feeling — working on a script for what I hope will be the first of several movies I’ll make out here with the reanimated fetuses.

 

They certainly seem up for it.

 

My script, about a trio of best friends who unwittingly hire a suicidal prostitute and then stage an elaborate funeral for her in the Suicide Cemetery, where they end up breaking their own hearts by pretending she was the long-lost love of their lives — reading out the eulogies they’d originally written for themselves, to be read by one another many years hence — is overlong, full of digressions I know I’ll never film, but I’m proud that it is, if nothing else, a substantive piece of writing, my first since my entanglement with Branson Entertainments began in earnest last summer.

 

I’m inventorying camera and sound equipment, trying to determine what we’ll need to assemble before we can start shooting, when a green siren in the replica town square brings all activity to a halt.

 

I turn to face it, as do the fetuses, their pickaxes resting on the cardboard cobblestones. A screen above the altar in the replica Church comes to life, showing a newsfeed so surreal at first I think it’s a short film:

 

I watch as Blut Branson emerges from the Dodge City Private Crypt, dusting himself off and blinking through harsh sunlight at the town he left behind. As Dodge City TMZ reporters shove microphones in his face, he says, “Look, everyone, all I’ll say is this: I, like Dante, had to go to hell for a while. That’s where I was. Now I’m back, ready for my Late Career Renaissance.”

 

With that, he pushes past them, hurling a reporter out of his face with enough force to send the rest scurrying. As he marches out of frame, I have the inexplicable but unshakeable sense that he’s coming straight for me.

 

*****

FOR A LONG TIME after he’s gone, the camera lingers on the facade of the Dodge City Private Crypt, a two-story stucco building somewhere in the Outskirts, its glass doors clacking less than gently in the breeze.

 

I first heard about the Private Crypt back in 2012, when there was a lot of talk about reapportioning our cemeteries, what with the new custodian of the Suicide Cemetery stirring up trouble and a rash of desecrations of the graves of formerly luminous directors, Branson’s foremost among them. So, as far as anyone knows, his body was moved to the Crypt after this and has been there ever since.

 

I’ve always thought of it as an even lower-brow Chelsea Hotel, catering to a dead rather than a down-n-out client base. Though I’ve never been inside, I picture rows of rooms along a dingy tile hallway, doors shut but not locked, the dead luminaries of our town posed like junkies on the nod.

 

It’s not lost on me that I’m using what may well be the last of my time before Branson shows up to think about the Private Crypt instead of making any push to set my film in motion, so as to appear to have become a real director in his absence. I feel like a teenager whose house party has spun out of control: I’ve just gotten word that my parents are on their way home early, and there’s no time to clean up, or even to separate whomever’s still screwing in the laundry room.

 

But that’s the way I am: when I start thinking about something, I tend to keep thinking about it in lieu of taking any action.

 

More than a man back from the dead, I think of Branson as a man just released from captivity, as if the Private Crypt were an asylum or a rehab, his bill of health finally clean.

 

I wonder what’s drawn him back — what business does he feel he’s left unfinished? What more could he want from us, given that, in the years since his supposed death, biopics, retrospectives, and conferences on his work have become a cottage industry in Dodge City, employing the vast majority of our scholars and journalists, not to mention a good number of our lesser filmmakers as well.

 

I can feel myself swaying on my feet, looking at nothing in particular, as the fetuses bustle around, dressing the set, oblivious or indifferent to the fact that production’s about to be shut down. My script hangs by my side, dangling between my thumb and forefinger, which are sweating through the pages.

 

*****

I’M STILL IN THIS STATE when Branson snaps his fingers in front of my eyes. I open them and feel my script land on my foot. Slowly, almost robotically, he bends down, picks it up, and begins to page through it.

 

Then we look at each other in earnest. I feel my lower back convulse. Something’s wrong: it’s him but it’s not him.

 

Up close, I see that he’s grown a thin white goatee and his eyes are strikingly bluer than I remember. Minty, frosty blue. I can’t say what shade I remember them being, since I never made a point of noticing, but I can tell they’re off. These are not Blut Branson’s eyes.

 

I can’t decide which is stranger: that he really has died and come back, or that he’d insist on such an improbable story, instead of whatever the truth is. Neither jibes with the Branson I knew. But maybe, I think, if he’s undergone some other change, something fundamental, the fact that he’s become a liar is the least of it … I spit up a little at the thought that the most drastic of his changes may only reveal themselves gradually, when it’s too late to shun him as an imposter.

 

“Hey,” he says, looking up from my script to survey the shantytown. “What’re you up to out here?”

 

This is my set! I want to yell in his face. I’m directing a movie is what I’m up to out here! “Nothing,” I say. “I just, uh …”

 

He nods, like this is all he needs to know. “Well, I have to get back to work.”

 

He bustles off among the fetuses, telling them what to build and criticizing what they’ve built already, checking my script every few seconds.

 

I know that if I don’t start moving right now I’m going to freeze in place. Then, at best, I’ll thaw and trudge back to Dodge City at dawn and chalk this whole venture up to experience, telling Big Pharmakos how we learn more from our failures than our successes over ten or twelve beers at the Hotel bar at noon, until they kick us out to clean before the evening rush.

 

I close my eyes and try to think. I think about gouging Branson in the back of the head with a pickaxe and dragging him back to the Dodge City Private Crypt, telling the door-person, “This one wasn’t ready for life on the outside.”

 

By the time I’ve thought this scenario through, Branson — or the Branson-lookalike — is already deep in rehearsal, reading aloud from my script like he wrote it, the fetuses gathered at his feet.

 

I suffer a moment of complete aloneness, overwhelmed by the vastness of the desert surrounding me and how far from home, security, and any kind of legitimate employment I’ve wandered, or let myself float.

 

THEN SOMETHING BEHIND MY FOREHEAD CLICKS:

 

No, I think. It doesn’t end this way.

 

I leave the shantytown behind, striding into the black desert surrounding it, convinced that if I stride with enough purpose, at least a few fetuses will follow.

 

And I’m right: at least a few do.

 

Several, even. More than I can count in the dark.

 

With my loyal troupe in the open desert surrounding what’s now the set of Blut Branson’s new film — the first of his Late Career Renaissance — I begin to improvise a scenario of my own. It will be a counter-film, a film made in tandem with his, designed specifically to refute it.

 

A film about an imposter, a simulacrum-Branson who broke free from his Private Crypt to hijack the passion project of his acolyte.

 

In a fugue of sudden and temporary confidence, I decide that as well as writing and directing this film, I’m going to star in it.

 

I stand before the fetuses with this resolve firm in my mind: However uncanny it ends up making me feel, I’m going to play Blut Branson, the real one, the one I remember. I’m going to plunge down until I find the thing in me that’s the same as the thing in him, and then I’m going to bring it back to the surface and express it for whomever ends up watching this to see.

 

The imposter-Branson who’s forced his way into our midst is a blessing in disguise, as I see it now, my doorway into the realm of greatness. I explain, in the best Branson-voice I can muster: “The Blut Branson I knew and loved is dead. Or was, for a long time. Now he’s back. I am he. He is me. You are looking right at him, and he will be your director from now until we finish the work it is finally time for us to begin.”

HAVING RESOLVED TO TAKE MY STAND on the ground of Blut Branson’s abandoned film set, I gather up my flashlight and the camcorder and memory stick I bought at ULTRA MAX over the weekend and make my way out of my Room and past the Hotel’s front desk, where a man who attempted suicide by poison but was resuscitated after 72 hours is haggling over his bill. “I shouldn’t be charged for that time!” he shouts. “Not full price anyway! I didn’t think I’d ever be in this position, so how can you expect me to have saved for it? I didn’t even bring my wallet. That was the only kindness I showed myself!!”

 

“As a Hotel, our business is to rent you a room, at a fixed rate per day,” replies the implacable concierge. “What you do in there is your business.”

 

The man grows so livid he opens his mouth without producing any sound, and leaves it open. Perhaps, I think, far from thanking a higher power for his miraculous recovery, he’ll simply default to suicide again, here on the spot even, if he has any poison left.

 

I make my way out, wondering if we ever learn from our mistakes.

 

*****

By the time I make it to the Outskirts, it’s late dusk. I turn on my flashlight, sweeping the terrain for any sign of Branson’s set, which the locals often refer to but superstitiously refuse to visit.

 

For a long time I don’t see anything but lean-to’s and shanties, rundown houses and former stores, car bodies without wheels and, twice, piles of dead dogs. For reasons I can’t explain, I have the thought, on both occasions, that these sinister piles are concealing something even more sinister — that the gross mass of rotting dogflesh is more decoy than travesty.

 

I don’t explore this thought beyond filing it away for use in a possible future film.

 

Finally, just at the point where I find myself debating whether to turn back, maybe shoot some footage of those dead dogs and call it a day, a row of torchlights appears on the horizon, making me feel like a medieval exile, seeking succor in the territories. The idea excites me: perhaps, as a Director, this will be my identity. I’ll show up at defunct sets along the road and, under guise of seeking shelter, take charge of the situation.

 

I’ll be somewhere between a Mayor and a Director, I think, imagining a series of abandoned towns lined up and waiting for me in a long row between here and the end of my life. I wonder who will witness these films, or is that the fatal question, the one that will keep me from making them? I file it away, for now, under maybe.

 

*****

I CROSS INTO THE CIRCLE OF LIGHTS, keeping my shoulders back and my chin up so whomever’s here doesn’t pounce, if they’re the type to. When I did karate as a child, that was the takeaway: well-trained people don’t win fights, they avoid them because of how they carry themselves.

 

All around me are plywood facades, half-finished buildings, marquees bearing two or three letters at most. Pickaxes piled in wheelbarrows. Like a miniature Dodge City, built by Blut Branson and his assistants in preparation for a film that never happened.

 

It’s impossible to tell if the disrepair is due to the buildings never having been finished, or if they’ve degraded in the years since preproduction ceased. Either way, it’s a shantytown now.

 

So here I am. In the main square I see nothing but children, and not very strong or well-looking ones at that. They lurch around, falling to their knees every few steps, carrying plastic plates away from a fire where the biggest among them are doling out what looks like squash and rice. The scene reminds me of the charity dinners the Quakers used to set up in front of their meetinghouse on summer Fridays downtown.

 

I approach the fire, figuring I’ll ask for a plate and thereby ingratiate myself by breaking bread, etc.

 

But before I get there, a searing pain in my left ankle brings me down. I find myself sitting on a piece of foam painted to look like a cobblestone, surrounded by tiny peering faces, not so much deformed as unformed. The one that bit me is now chewing a knob of my flesh. The gesture seems self-contained: I do not believe it will be repeated.

 

The others simply open and close their mouths like they think they’re breathing underwater. It takes me a moment to see them for what they are, or were:

 

FETUSES.

 

They look almost like babies but not. Their faces are — I make a note of this phrase in the verbatim section of my brain — too innocent. I immediately consider this as a possible title for my film.

 

As I sit with them, listening to their low, mournful chatter, I remember a story Big Pharmakos told me when we were very drunk one night early in my time in Dodge City:

 

“Not that long ago,” Big Pharmakos began, in the bar of the Hotel, which I did not yet know would be my residence for the next four years at least, “there was a scandal at the abortion clinic. After decades of protests, attacks, even a few murders, the Dodge City Pro-Life League came up with a far more radical approach. Instead of killing the aborters, who, after all, would simply be replaced with others just like them, these Pro-Lifers thought, why not address the problem itself by reanimating the aborted fetuses?”

 

Here, sitting on the foam-cobblestones of the shantytown, I look at my companions — my cast & crew, I think, a bit prematurely perhaps — the living embodiments of Big Pharmakos’ story which, at the time, I’d had more than a little trouble believing.

 

“So, using a technology the nature of which no one understands,” Big Pharmakos continued, “these Pro-Lifers snuck into the trash behind the clinic late one night, after a big haul of fetuses had been deposited, and took them all out, brought them back to a lab somewhere and, well … as far anyone knows, regrew them in tanks, under heat-lamps.”

 

The strange thing about these fetuses, I think, studying them more closely now, is that they were given the chance to gestate for far longer than they would have had they remained in the womb. For them, there never came the point of “now it’s time to make your way out” … they just grew on and on in there, getting bigger without ever crossing the line between fetus and baby … and now here they are, fending for themselves in a world they were perhaps never meant to inhabit.

 

Aware that I’m close to the point of having done enough thinking for one day, I yawn, close my eyes, and watch the rough framework of my film fall into place: If I can only get these fetuses to portray the children they never were and will never be, I think, limping toward the facade of the pretend Hotel in search of a place to sleep, there will be a built-in sense of drama, inherent beyond whatever ability I may or may not have as a Director.

 

You were given a second lease on life, I imagine telling them, from offscreen, as the opening scene unfolds. Are you glad? What use have you made of it so far, and what plans, if any, do you have for the future?

IT’S WELL KNOWN among those who follow the lives of the Great Directors that, from 2005 to 2011, Blut Branson was dead.

 

Though no one knew where his body was, exactly, no one, not even Big Pharmakos, was optimistic or superstitious enough to consider him still-living. All anyone ever told me was that one day he stormed out of Dodge City, echoing David Lynch with the claim that “Movies aren’t really my bag these days,” and sent no further signal.

 

I’ll admit that I’ve had a similar thought on occasion, what with today’s seemingly infinite, and infinitely disposable, online content streams competing endlessly for our diminishing attention … it’s almost enough to motivate one back into literature, a party that, poorly attended as it’s been since the end of the 19th century at the latest, hasn’t grown any more poorly attended in recent years, contrary to claims made by certain experts between 2008 and 2012.

 

Anyway, the set of the film Branson had been working on became a paralyzed village on the outskirts of Dodge City, the cast and crew hanging around, eating craft services until they were all gone and then beginning to eat each other, waiting for instructions, refusing to accept their project’s demise.

 

*****

TO BACK UP, in fall 2011, I was in my apartment on Dana St. in Cambridge, MA where I lived before moving to Dodge City, listening to Fresh Air when a Q&A with Branson, whose films I’d discussed in my college thesis, came on. Believing him to be dead, I snapped out of my slight torpor, becoming for once in my life fully alert.

 

The first thing I noticed in this new state of attention was that the broadcast was structured like an old-school audience call-in radio show, where Terry Gross kept stopping to announce the phone number, inviting listeners to call in with “those burning questions you’ve always had for Blut but never known how to ask.”

 

Various people from around the country called in to ask “where do you get your ideas?” and “who the heck was that guy behind the dumpster?” And one woman who wanted to know if 35 was too late to embark upon a creative career (“You’re still a baby!” enthused Branson, his tone unusually warm) — until, strange as it seems now that I’m writing it, I heard my own voice come on the air.

 

I perked up even more, checking myself for signs of splitting or doubling. “What about your unrealized Zoos of the Infinite Blue Horror Hole script? Any chance of that seeing the light of day?” I asked.

 

“Well,” Branson began, as Terry Gross coughed politely in the background, perhaps aware that we were straying into uncomfortable territory, “now that you mention it, I have been thinking that maybe …”

 

Thus began a long, sometimes frightening discussion of Branson’s great unrealized project. The thing I didn’t understand until much later was that this broadcast was actually from 2005, the year before his supposed death, and that it had come back on the air in 2011 to cover a rare medical absence on Terry Gross’ part.

 

So, in 2011, I ended up re-listening to my 2005-self discuss the legendary “lost Branson masterpiece,” which in the intervening six years I’d come to think of as my own idea, one of what has often felt like an infinite number of unrealized projects, riding with me from town to town.

 

Listening to the broadcast in Cambridge in 2011 provided a much-needed jolt of fresh air, no pun intended, into what, I’ll admit, had become a fairly stagnant period of time.

 

“The idea,” Branson explained, “is to consider an infinite recurrence of zoos: endless sets of higher, or supposedly higher, species watching the behavior of lower species, while one of them is imprisoned and the other is free. Each zoo spectator is the zoo animal for the next-higher species, so that each is at once knowing subject and unknowing object … but what’s interesting to me is the idea that it’s not the behavior of any given species that entertains the next higher species (and by proxy the film’s eventual viewer, if it were ever to be made), but rather the attention that each species pays to the lower species … the mode of attention, if you will, the specific qualities of it, the nature of each species’ prurience and perversion when it comes to the lives of those less fortunate  … do you see?”

 

“Yeah,” I heard myself say, Terry Gross coughing again in the background.

 

 

“Of course, stories where characters believe they’re the zoo visitors only to discover they are in fact the zoo animals are a dime a dozen, but what sets my idea apart is its infinitude … how the pairs magnify out, across spacetime, to a dizzying level of complexity, as the creeping suspicion that there can never be an end of zoos begins to dawn on the viewer.”

 

I sat on my bed in Cambridge nodding, listening to my 2005-self wait for Branson to continue.

 

“The only real problem,” he continued, after a lengthy pause, “is that I don’t yet have a suitable linking concept … nor any real characters to speak of. But the set in Dodge City is built and ready to go.”

 

“Then how will you work through the next phase?” Terry Gross interjected, a tad confrontationally, probably attempting to regain control of her interview subject.

 

“That,” said Branson, his voice harsh and defensive again, “is the kind of question that can make a filmmaker disappear.”

 

Which, of course, is exactly what he did, not long after.

 

*****

AT THIS POINT the broadcast went dead, but no matter — I was already scribbling in my journal:

 

Patchwork of childhood influences — all the fairy tales I absorbed as a child were, for me, literally true — my parents and teachers were trying to make me into what I needed to become in order to take Branson on, the minotaur in the labyrinth of my own influence … the giant between me and my becoming.

 

Now I’m liberated, on the prowl, like a samurai hero figure who doesn’t yet know his own power, or his own freedom to wield that power … Somehow I need to create for myself an avatar within Branson’s world, a better self to be as I explore his baroque imagination …

 

And thereby eviscerate him from this inside out …

 

The last line in that journal entry was: “Looks like I’ll be moving to Dodge City to take over the set Branson abandoned.”

 

Little did I know then that he’d come back from the dead barely a month after my arrival, but oh well. At least I shook off the torpor of Cambridge, and academia generally.

 

*****

NOW, THE DAY BEFORE HALLOWEEN 2015, with Branson having been back from the dead for four years, I happen to reread this journal, which I’d forgotten about until now.

 

Taking a beer from the fridge in my Room — where I’ve been deposited after my return from Kazakhstan — I walk out to the balcony and look across town, all the way to the lights of Branson Industries … and I wonder if the set he abandoned when he supposedly died is still there, out in the desert …

 

 

Stuffing my notebooks into a backpack and finishing my beer, I decide to find out for myself.

 

As I ride the elevator down to the lobby, I try to tally up all the time I’ve wasted here, and decide, as the elevator doors ding open, to make the film myself. Whether or not it’s exactly what I’ve always imagined myself doing, it’s what I’m going to do right now, I decide, trying to make my voice sound non-negotiable in my head.

 

MY RESISTANCE IN THE M-TOWER is even shorter-lived than I’d sort of feared it might be.

 

As soon as I say aloud, “My M-Tower isn’t yours to take, Blut Branson,” agents swoop down from the sky — I can’t remember if they’re on ropes or parachutes — gag me with an ether rag, and load me into a truck as I’m passing out.

 

I wake up what feels like years later, though it must in reality be a few hours. I’m in a bed that’s actually pretty comfy, with a blanket pulled up to my chin and, though I don’t reach my hands up to check, a tightness that feels like a sleeping cap on my head.

 

In front of me is a combined TV/VCR unit in a wall-mounted frame, with an empty VHS box on top. The box says DEAD RINGERS 2: A David Cronenberg Film, though I immediately have the cold, creepy feeling that it’s actually a Blut Branson film, perhaps one I’m now seeing for the second time, given how familiar it feels.

 

Still, I fall right in, as I always do with Cronenberg films, even apocryphal ones.

 

This one involves the same twin duo from the original, again played by Jeremy Irons, though by this point he looks well on his way to aging into a poor man’s Jeremy Irons.

 

In this scenario, the twins are film professors at a shoddy rural college, sort of a Miskatonic University vibe; it’s maybe even shot on the same set as Re-Animator, now that I look closer. The professors teach a Monsters of the Korean New Wave course, though all the clips they screen are blacked out — probably, I think, because Branson (I mean, Cronenberg) couldn’t secure the rights. So we see the students reacting in awe to what we know is nothing.

 

As in the first Dead Ringers, the twins make sure that only one of them is ever seen at a time, so as not to let on that they’re not the same person. Their angle is to sleep with as many students as possible, same as in the original (here I begin to wonder if, unless it’s just the ether talking, perhaps this is the original, questioning my memory of that film taking place in a gynecology clinic in Toronto, though this is exactly the kind of wormhole-bound thinking I’ve been trying to train myself to nip in the bud) …

 

The heart of the drama, once the film has established its premise and reached the point where it needs to ratchet up the conflict, centers on the problem of one twin growing more infatuated with a certain student than the other twin wants him to be. (And by extension less infatuated with his twin than their symbiosis requires.)

 

In this case, it’s a Goth girl with a very conspicuous nerve disease: like the worst case of shingles ever contracted, her nerves have grown outside her body and are hanging down her face like a mane of dreadlocks. I picture her being played by Sheri Moon Zombie, but even in my semi-delirium I’m fairly certain this isn’t actually the case.

 

One twin wants nothing to do with her, but the other, either locating a genuine fetish in himself alone, or simply eager to torment his twin by acting on a non-shared desire, decides to try to sleep with her anyway.

 

He seduces her in a quickly dashed-off “office hours” montage, at the end of which they go back to the bungalow that he, Elliot (the names, too, are reprised from Dead Ringers) shares with his more sensitive, self-protective twin, Beverly.

 

While Beverly sleeps in the spare bedroom they call The Nursery, Elliot has sex with the Goth girl — whose name, he learns, is Chloë, a double-major in film theory and Japanese — in the tub.

 

SHE LEAVES IN THE MORNING and Elliot struts into the breakfast nook, ostensibly to gloat to Beverly about last night’s conquest, but before he gets a chance to speak, we see his face: riven with worm-like, protruding nerves, his lips crawling, bloody fluid dribbling from his nose into his mouth.

 

Beverly butters his toast with a derisive I told you so smile as his twin writhes. Soon he’s nothing but a rubber-band ball of nerves, tangled in himself, shrinking. Even his voice is swallowed up, struggling to croak.

 

*****

I DRIFT OFF at this point in the video, waking to find Elliot shrunken to the size of a child, Beverly now in the position of caring for him, as if this new entity were his son, not his twin.

 

Chloë is back in the picture as well, living with Beverly as a sort of mother to the baby-Elliot, as if he were the natural offspring of their night together in the tub. It’s not clear whether she understands that the man she’s living with isn’t the same as the man she slept with — perhaps their perfect twindom has her fooled more than anyone, though she must know she hasn’t given birth.

 

I get the sense, from watching Beverly’s performance in these scenes, that he’s jealous of his shrunken twin, wishing that he could’ve been the one to regress and be cared for instead … Even a horrible nerve disease like that, I imagine him thinking in voice-over, it’d be worth it if I could have back all the years I’ve wasted in the process of becoming whatever I am now … a sundered twin … an unwitting father … a rural film professor doomed to irrelevance.

 

I can’t help hearing Cronenberg himself, now the vaunted elder craftsman of such highbrow but somehow toothless fare as A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis, likewise wishing he could have back the gory, sleazy years of his youth … If I could just get myself back to the 80s, I think, pretending I’m him, and make Videodrome and The Fly and Dead Ringers againjust one more time, I’d … I’d … I’d …

 

I nod off wondering what I’d do if I were Cronenberg, granted permission to return to the 80s for one day only. When I wake up, Blut Branson’s leaning over me with a scalpel in one hand, shining a laser pointer in my eye with the other.

 

This dislodges a new, frightening supposition, just as the tape begins to auto-rewind: what if I’ve been shown this video as a form of infantilization, before my reckoning with Blut begins … a sort of video-anesthesia … a forced regression to my own helpless infancy, same as the twin onscreen …

 

As he scours my face with the laser pointer, the phrase that keeps moving through my mind is softening me up … softening me up … he’s softening me up …

 

I’m still thinking this as he focuses the laser pointer someplace behind my ear, and makes the first incision with the scalpel. I know I should be grateful, but all I can access is terror when I realize the pain I’m ready for isn’t getting through.

 

I also realize, as he’s doing whatever he’s doing, that I’ve been so totally taken in by his sequel to Dead Ringers that all I feel is regret at not having laid my M-Tower at his feet after all. What use is it to anyone now? I wonder, aware that the scalpel is inside my skull, probably erasing my memory of this whole episode.

DEAD BROKE, BORED, LOST IN MY HEAD, I finally decide, after months of stewing in my Room, to put myself out there. Make myself available to someone other than myself. “Use me for what you will,” I think in the direction of the world at large, knowing I don’t entirely mean it.

 

My own thoughts, my own interests — the open question of who do I think I am — will always be primary in my life, for better or worse, but for now I’ve decided to siphon off a little attention in the direction of the the highest bidder, or any bidder at all.

 

I describe myself on the Dodge City Craigslist as an “all-around film assistant with razor-sharp instincts, if not exactly rock-solid skills,” and modestly set my minimum desired salary at $15/hour.

 

Amazingly, one of Blut Branson’s assistants calls me the next afternoon, waking me from my 3:05-3:15 nap. “Can you come by?” she asks, like I ought to know where she means.

 

“Sure,” I reply, like I do.

 

She hangs up without telling me when.

 

I lie still until my alarm goes off at 3:15, then get dressed and head down to the concierge. Like a German tourist, I ask where Blut Branson’s headquarters are located. Taking obvious relish in being asked, she takes out the Local Attractions map and draws a tight circle at the outer edge of the official Walking Tour path. She reminds me to take sunscreen and plenty of water on my walk, like I really am a German tourist and not someone who’s lived in this hotel for the last four years. To be fair, I don’t know who she is either, but I can’t help feeling it’s more her job to recognize me than my job to recognize her, even though, I allow, there are exponentially more faces on her radar than there are on mine.

 

When I get over this, I take her map and set out. After a hot, disoriented wandering spell, I arrive at what the map calls A complex of refurbished hostels, originally intended for those Civil War deserters enterprising enough to make it this far West. The premises are surrounded by a giant wrought-iron fence supporting a sign that reads BRANSON ENTERTAINMENTS in rusted metal letters. The similarity to Lars von Trier’s ZENTROPA ENTERTAINMENTS on the edge of Copenhagen is naked enough to read as homage.

 

I’m considering rattling the gate to announce my arrival when an assistant rolls up on a golf cart, opening the gate from inside with her iPhone and gesturing for me to climb aboard.

 

“You got the call?” she asks, in a voice that might be the same as the one that called me.

 

I nod and climb onto the cart beside her as she puts it in drive, taking us straight into the heart of the complex, which contains five large buildings and a number of smaller ones, like sheds, in clusters around the periphery. I can’t believe I’ve lived in Dodge City since 2011 — a period during which I viewed each of Branson’s nine films at least twice — without ever coming out here. This speaks, scarily, to the separation I’ve fostered between myself and the outside world since my arrival. The image-world inside my computer and the flesh-world of people, places, and things out here have never seemed less related or further apart.

 

“OK, get out,” she says, jerking the golf cart to a halt and returning me to real-time.

 

I tumble to my feet, dizzy, like I’ve just been on a plane, and follow her along a concrete path and into the bunker. We pass through a thick plastic curtain and into a cement-smelling cavern, where the only lights on are red. I get the sense that unseen plant life is growing.

 

I follow her further in, past tables laid out with what looks like guns and cash, into a side room with a door that requires a fingerprint scan to open.

 

Inside sit at least fifty other people, applicants like me, I’m assuming, on plastic chairs under more of that harsh red light. At the focus of everyone’s attention sits Branson himself, in fatigues, combat boots, and a safari hat.

 

He turns and looks me over, calmly, and when he turns away I have the feeling that he’s seen all the way in.

 

I take this as my cue to sit down.

 

“OK,” Branson begins, once I have, like my sitting down has reactivated him from a brief deep-freeze. “The time has come to determine who, if any of you, has what I’m looking for.”

 

He leans to the side to reach into his back pocket and removes what looks like a plastic hood, which he unwraps and stretches over his head, sealing it around the neck. Then, stoic though it doesn’t look like he can breathe, he presses a button on his iPhone and hurries out of the room.

 

Gas hisses down from a sprinkler and we all nod out.

 

*****

WHEN I COME TO, I’m in a glaring white room with six other people. We’re laid out on cots, tied up inside sleeping bags so we can only wiggle.

 

“The seven of you,” says Branson’s voice over an intercom, “have been selected as location scouts for my next film, working title Grassland Mastodon. The others have been let go. This is, needless to say, an immense honor. Your one shot at the big time, to put it lightly. The jets leave for Kazakhstan in half an hour. Each of you will receive a written description and a sketch of the location you are to find.”

 

He pauses to swallow whatever he’s chewing.

 

“I have never in my life dreamed of a location for one of my films,” he continues, his voice turning grave, “and failed to find it somewhere upon the earth. What is in me is also out there. This is my brand, my claim to fame, my greatest asset.”

 

I’ve seen this claim made before, in a book of Branson interviews I read on the plane en route to Dodge City. Its metaphysical hubris impressed me even before I’d seen his films, and impresses me still, perhaps more than the films themselves ever quite have.

 

“My chronic fear of flying has been well-documented for decades, so it should come as no surprise that I require your assistance in tracking these locations down.” His voice keeps getting louder. “Suffice it to say, if you find the location you have been tasked with finding, its inclusion in my body of work will serve as a source of pride for you for years to come. It will be your life’s crowning achievement. You will not be credited outright, but you will know in your hearts, when you see my film, that the credit is yours.”

 

As he’s saying this, an assistant enters the room with a scissor and, after asking each of us if we consent to execute the job we’ve been selected for (we all do), cuts us free. “Scout the area you’re air-dropped into,” says the assistant, “overlooking no corner of it, relentlessly seeking out the location described in the file you’ve been given. Your $15/hour will be paid upon your safe return, bearing photos of the location and its exact coordinates. You will be paid for 20 hours per day. Do not let Mr. Branson suspect that any of you have worked fewer.”

 

*****

IN A FEW MINUTES I’M AIRBORNE, leaving Dodge City behind for the first time since I found myself briefly in Scotland with Big Pharmakos in 2012. I can’t see the other planes, but I picture us all taking off like some air force squadron departing to bomb a distant continent. No, I think. Not to bomb that continent, but to pillage its natural resources, to dig them up and bring them back to Branson so that he might continue his career as a world-class visionary without ever leaving his Room.

 

 

I look out the window at the landmass becoming a speck until the co-pilot rushes over and shuts the blind saying, “Branson requires his location scouts to keep their minds clear until arrival at the designated site. Finding a Branson location is as much a matter of tuning one’s inner landscape as it is of scanning the outer. You’ll see. May I suggest a sleep-mask?”

 

He pulls it over my eyes and I give up trying to resist, letting it put me to sleep as we cross the North Pole.

 

AFTER THIRTEEN HOURS, the co-pilot returns to pull the sleep-mask off my eyes and inform me that we’ve touched down in Kazakhstan. I’d been expecting a concrete bunker airport on the outskirts of a ramshackle city, but it looks like we’ve landed on a dirt patch in the middle of the steppe.

 

“Ok,” says the pilot, handing me a heavy backpack. “You’re in charge from here. Read Branson’s description of the location he’s seeking, then walk in whatever direction you feel it lies in. If you didn’t have an innate sense for where that is, he wouldn’t have chosen you. There’s a phone in the pack that will ring when it’s time for your pick-up. You are to take pictures with that phone as well.”

 

Before I can ask anything else, he’s back in the plane with the door locked. I can tell that pounding on it will only exhaust me and annoy him, so I put my head down, shoulder the pack, and trudge off into the grass, holding the file that Branson gave me. I adjust the pack’s straps as I go, taking in the vastness of the landscape I’m about to get lost in.

 

*****

AFTER A FEW DAYS of walking through rocky fields and sparse grass, with nothing in mind except the location that Branson described in the file — a lone tower in the midst of a rocky field, jutting into the sky — I climb over a small hill and, on the other side, find exactly what I was afraid I might find: the M. Tower, jutting into the sky.

 

The M. Tower, as I’ve called it since I was a child — due to the large stone M of its roof, which I always assumed stood for me or mine — is the structure I’ve gone to most frequently in my mind when I needed to exit the reality around me and enter a place of pure cerebral calm. The running water inside the M. Tower is a self-renewing spring of fresh thought, where all of my ideas have come from, where the dream of every movie I’ve ever dreamed of making has been born. I’ve spent whole days in here, drinking from the faucet on the top floor, looking out over a vast inner landscape absolutely identical to the one I’m standing in now.

mtower 1

Am I in my own mind? I wonder. Have I gone nowhere but deeper in?

 

If nothow did Branson find this place inside me? What did he do to me while I was gassed?

 

My skin crawls. Nothing feels more important than protecting the M. Tower from Branson’s influence. It’s not his to steal, I think, my voice regressing to that of a child in my inner ear.

 

But what’s the alternative? Trudging on, into more grass, until my supplies run out? I imagine picking up the phone when it rings and lying, telling Branson’s people that there’s nothing out here. I reach in the pack and take out the phone, put it to my ear and practice lying, but all that comes out are stammers.

 

I’ve never been a good liar, even in low-stakes circumstances. The thought of convincing an operation as militarized as Branson’s of anything but the truth is more than I can hold in mind. So I give up on this possibility.

 

To keep from hyperventilating, I sit down where I’d been standing, and feel the M. Tower’s shadow wash over me, cool as the sheets on my childhood bed when I’d lie down for my 3:05-3:15 nap and spend it doing nothing but thinking about movies.

 

It occurs to me that this must be how Branson operates — each location scout he hires has an inner landscape of their own, which he somehow unearths while we’re under the gas. Then, he claims it as a product of his own imagination and sends us out to locate it.

 

I try to follow the logic through … If I’m inside my own mind now, I think, what would it mean to emerge back into objective reality and lead Branson’s people here? And after that, how would they film it and convey its reality to a mass audience?

 

Perhaps they’ll make a scale replica, I think, and bring it back to Branson Entertainments to be used on-set there. The thought of the actual M. Tower, here and real before me for the first time, being turned into a replica of itself is too grotesque to dwell on. I spit to clear the thought, watching my dehydrated saliva trickle off the side of my shoe and into the steppe-grass.

 

Getting back to my feet, I creep around the bottom of the M. Tower, looking up at its majestic stone flanks, listening to the spring of pure thought flow through its piping, making my mouth water.

 

Bowing my head in reverence, I go in.

 

Inside the M. Tower, I take my first gulp from the faucet and think: I’ll spend the night alone in here, on the very top floor, surveying the landscape.

 

If, in the morningI still can’t bear the thought of surrendering it to Branson, I’ll prepare to take radical action then.