I’M BACK IN THE ROOM IN THE HALL IN PUSSYGRAB PALACE, where I seem to do the vast majority of my TV-watching these days. It’s not a comfortable room, but it’s one that, by dint of time served, has grown comfortable to me.

 

Onscreen is a parade of Pussygrabs, dying one after another beneath the blade of a guillotine operated by a giant in a Ronald McDonald costume and a leathery white face mask.

 

“Ketchup to my mustard!” he shouts, each time the next Pussygrab’s blood splatters him, though the comparison is strained at best since the blood’s green.

 

After ten such executions, the real Pussygrab (or another Pussygrab) strides onstage and gleefully executes the Ronald McDonald. He pulls the mask off the head, revealing — what else? — another Pussygrab head, dripping green tendrils like pumpkin strands.

 

“Yes!” he shouts, holding the head high for the cameras. “Yes, yes. I am Pussygrab. We are legion. Screw us and we multiply! All assassination requests will be honored. Many of you have called for my head, so here it is!”

 

He kisses the severed head on the lips before kicking it offstage to raucous applause and desperate laughter (my own included).

 

 

*****

THEN A SMASH CUT to a sweaty red face so large its eyes define the upper left and right corners of the screen, its mouth the entire bottom:

 

“For years and years,” it’s saying, as drool pours from its lips and onto my feet under the desk, “I’ve been trying to tell you guys about the Lizards at the top of the pyramid. I’ve been trying to warn you that behind every President, behind every Governor, behind every Mayor and Schoolmarm even, lies a slithering, conscienceless, extra-dimensional Lizard-God whose name must never be spoken, not even in dreams.”

 

He pauses, consulting his notes and sucking down so much spit he has to swallow in two glugs.

 

“Well,” he resumes, momentarily dry-mouthed, “it now appears that I was either very wrong or very, very right.”

 

The screen cuts to footage of the numerous severed Pussygrab heads on the execution stage, rolling gently in the wind, tongues lolling out like Fruit-by-the-Foot.

 

In voice-over, the commentator continues, “You see, the Lizard-Gods are now either unmasking themselves — showing their faces, at last, as they really are, perhaps to call an end to their grand experiment, or to ratchet it up to a new, heretofore unimaginable level — OR, and I stress this possibility, they’ve simply cloaked themselves in new and even more disingenuous forms by appearing to be Lizards, when, all along, they’ve actually been something very, very different … worms, for instance, or slugs. And all this time, using highly sophisticated intergalactic mind-control, they duped us all (myself included, and you know how hard I am to dupe) into believing they were Lizard-Gods, and now, by appearing to be Lizard-Gods, they’re merely –”

 

 

*****

THE SCREEN TEARS IN HALF like a shredded piece of paper, while the words BREAKING NEWS flash across the torn part:

 

We cut to Paul Sweetie in his white wedding dress, weeping in a meadow.

 

Through his sobs I can just make out the words, “I found God! I found God! Look at me mom, I found God!”

 

The camera zooms in as he gets up, brushes himself off, and stretches his frayed New Aryan Skin back over his knees and elbows, covering the lizard-green beneath. Catching his breath as the mic is shoved up to his mouth, he says, “My whole life I’ve been searching for God. The real God, you know? The one I knew when I was a boy. The one that made me feel safe and secure in the universe, like I was at the center of things. Like I was being protected while others weren’t … I’ll never know why that God went away for so long, but now, thank God, He’s back!”

 

He starts crying again here, batting the camera away, shielding his face.

 

“Sorry, sorry,” he says. “I just … it’s just all so emotional.”

 

He points at the meadow, where the camera pans over to reveal a mess of wires, glass, sawdust, wood, goo, slime, and other industrial and extraterrestrial materials.

 

“God,” Sweetie continues, walking into the rubble now, barefoot beneath his wedding dress, “must have been hovering deep in the sky, too high to see. I don’t want to say I ever lost faith entirely, but there were years in there when I couldn’t be sure He wasn’t gone. I just felt abandoned, you know? I felt like the blacks, the gays, the poor … I just felt like they were all ganging up on me.” He starts crying again, looking upward at the clouds.

 

“But, with the ascent of Pussygrab and all the wonderful things that’ve been happening since, well, it looks like God decided to show Himself again! It’s a miracle. A Dodge City Miracle. As simple as that.”

 

 

*****

THE SCREEN RIPS again here, and then — though I thought the feed was live — it flashes on a banner that reads TWO WEEKS LATER:

 

Now it’s showing a Chain Gang in the meadow, with all of Dodge City’s dark-skinned people, and all of its women, and all of its Jews chained at the ankles as they labor to put the fallen God back together and erect a scaffolding to hoist it back into the sky.

 

Paul Sweetie, meanwhile, sits on a wooden lifeguard chair sipping a mojito and fanning himself with a rolled-up magazine.

 

The camera zooms back in for a statement:

 

“It’s just so wonderful,” he says, “to see our citizens working together in harmony for the greater good. Just watch them! Together, as one, they’re restoring God to His rightful place in the firmament: just high enough to be safe from harm and just low enough to be always visible!”

 

The camera pans over to the Chain Gang, where a young woman has collapsed, knocking down her row of conjoined workers. On their knees, those closest to her set about chewing through her ankle so they can cut her loose and get back to work.

 

 

*****

THE BROADCAST JUMPS BACK to the raving commentator who says what I’m already thinking:

 

“So it looks we have a classic battle of Aliens vs. Christians here. Which one ultimately controls The Dodge City Deep State, and what do they want? And which side, if either, is Pussygrab on? Are they attempting to depose him or to make him invincible? Was Paul Sweetie duped by a temporary psychosis into perceiving God amidst all that rubble, or can he see what we cannot? Is Paul Sweetie our next Mayor? All this and more answered on … ”

 

Now the screen goes fully black, and silent too, like someone’s pulled the plug. The drool begins to freeze on my feet as I face the unique terror of having nothing to do.

 

I shiver in the silence and cold of the room, unable to block the sense that a Deep State Tentacle is reaching up from the depths to pull us all — Pussygrab and his clones and Paul Sweetie and his God, and all the rest of us with them — under.

NO SOONER HAVE I CROSSED OVER INTO DALTONLAND, the theme park in which Dodge City’s old-guard, centrist candidate won the election and life went on as normal, than I find myself behind a console, watching what is either the news or a hastily assembled TV Movie on Amazon Prime.

 

In the news-or-Movie, one of the biggest Swamp Creatures, whose New Aryan Skin is bunched up like a shawl around his shoulders, is being sworn in as Director of the CIA. He grunts and drools over the Bible, pulping it with his claws.

 

Clearing his throat after the swearing-in’s complete, he says, “Ladies and germs, my first act as Director of the CIA is to declare all of Dodge City a Black Site.”

 

“What does that mean, exactly?” shouts an off-screen voice.

 

“What does it mean? It means that, from now on, anything goes. Torture works. Whatever we need to do to get to the bottom of what we believe, or imagine, is going on here, we’ll do. With impunity. With secrecy. Without interference. Without oversight. Did I mention that torture works?”

 

He clears his throat again, spits phlegm, and then looks straight at the camera, straight at me. “Torture works,” he says, his voice pinched as he attempts to tighten his New Aryan Skin around his collarbone. “From now on, whatever happens in Dodge City is what was meant to happen. God has returned to this town, after many years in the wilderness.”

 

 

*****

THE SCREEN BOILS and buzzes and then Zizek, the Slovenian Marxist philosopher and bro-provocateur par excellence, appears in a plush brown armchair in front of a tacky photo of an Eastern European cityscape.

 

Deploying some of his signature tics as he scrapes at his tatty beard and neck and wipes spittle from his lips, he says, “Now, what does it mean that Dodge City is a Black Site? In what sense, if any, is such a pronouncement to be understood as meaningful?”

 

I lean closer to the screen, genuinely intrigued by the question. At the same time, I focus on keeping my expression neutral, as I’m wary of being watched. Furthermore, I’m trying to determine if the man onscreen is Zizek himself, or an impersonator. If so, he’s a good one (or else the real Zizek is growing less authentic with age).

 

“What it means,” he says, “is that all contact between Dodge City and the outside world has been suspended, perhaps even permanently walled off. Now, for those of you who’ve lived here for any amount of time, this won’t feel much different from life as it’s always been. After all, who in Dodge City can rightly claim to have maintained a true relationship with the outside world?”

 

He pauses here, as if expecting me to respond. I don’t.

 

“What’s different in this case,” he eventually continues, “is the awareness that it’s now official policy. That there is now, quite literally, no one to hear you scream. Everything that happens in Dodge City from now on is part of the Pussygrab Regime. Assume it’s all intentional, even the chaos. Especially the chaos. Assume that all news is internal, even this news. Even me …”

 

I lean even closer to the screen, trying to determine which possibility scares me more: that I’m being warned of a true terror by an accurate outside source, or that I’m being entertained by an actor from The Dodge City Film Industry, as I’ve been so many times throughout my life … almost consistently throughout my life, to the exclusion of all other experience, now that I think about it.

 

I find that I can’t remember what the real Zizek is supposed to look like and I have no phone or other means of getting online (and who’s to say the whole Internet isn’t controlled by the Black Site now, assuming it hasn’t always been?) … So, the longer I stare at the image onscreen, which goes on talking to me, the less certain I can be about what I’m hearing, and whether to believe it.

 

“The precise nature of the torture that will go on in this Black Site is still unclear,” the man (I’ve grown wary of calling him Zizek, even in my mind) goes on. “Whether the classic tortures — waterboarding and thumbscrews and electrocution and so on and so on — will go into effect, or whether daily life in Dodge City itself will simply become torturous — if it hasn’t been all along — is the question we’re all asking ourselves, as well as the question I’m asking you, aloud, right now, on Live TV.”

 

He winks and vanishes from the screen, leaving his chair empty.

 

My spine seizes up and I turn around, terrified that he’s in here with me now, watching over my shoulder. Is this, I wonder, the first official act of torture undertaken against me? And if so, to what end? What do I know, or do they think I know, that could be of use to them?

 

 

*****

WHEN I LOOK BACK AT THE SCREEN, the CIA Director is sitting in the armchair, cradling a black VHS tape. “This,” he begins, “is the only extant record of the history of torture in Dodge City up to this point. As a token of his largesse and transparency, the Colonel is making it available to the public to reassure them that our torture program has always been entirely civic-minded and aboveboard. He wants you all to see that there is no, so to speak, funny business going on. I want to make it abundantly clear that the Colonel doesn’t have to offer this for viewing. He has chosen to do so. Any Dodge City citizen is free to view this video. Just line up one at a time!”

 

He smiles and his teeth glisten, like in a toothpaste commercial, except they’re dripping yellow sludge and his gums are only partially attached.

 

 

*****

AFTER A LONG AFTERNOON spent watching viewer testimonials about the video — “Beautiful! Just beautiful!” one housewife shouts, as if trying to drown out another voice in her head; “A torture program we can all be comfortable with!” shouts another, munching popcorn from a microwave bag — the screen I’m watching opens to reveal a screen-within-the-screen.

 

This inner screen shows the tape being inserted into a VCR.

 

Now I’m watching the torture video right where I sit, in the supposed sanctity of DaltonLand, deep inside the Black Site.

 

A chair, a naked lightbulb, Paul Sweetie in a white wedding dress … my eyes are peeled, ready to see the horror for what it is … to bear witness and stand up for the truth …

 

BUT:

 

Next thing I know, I’m sitting on a chaise lounge sipping lemon spritzer in a room I don’t recognize (back in the Hotel?), thinking, as I try to remember what I’ve just seen, Well, that didn’t seem so bad … surely if that’s all we’re doing, it’s for the best … isn’t it? I mean, keeping Dodge City safe and all …

 

And then, becalmed, I let myself drift into a cool and dreamless sleep.

THERE’S NO PERCEPTIBLE INTERVAL between the end of one Movie and the start of the next. Now I’m watching what appears to be an architectural walk-thru video in which the Hotelier (played here by a razor-burned egghead in an ill-fitting dress shirt who looks like he’s 20 at most) takes us up and down what he refers to as the “Corridors of Power,” constructed last night by an architect known only as the “American MC Escher.”

 

The architect, or an actor playing him, follows along, staring at his feet like he doesn’t want the Netflix crew to see his face.

 

“The American MC Escher,” explains the Hotelier, all too happy to be photographed, “did a real bang-up job for us. As soon as Col. Pussygrab emerged victorious, and the question arose of where Pussygrab Palace would be located, we knew we had some superimposing to do, and fast. No location save for the Hotel itself would suffice, but, at the same time, the Hotel was far from adequate for accommodating such an august and entitled ruler.

 

“So, in short, the American MC Escher, who turned out to have been living a quiet life in one of our Rooms all along, patiently developing a method for superimposing one Hotel upon another” — ‘just as art!’ the American MC Escher interjects, still hiding his face in the background of the screen, ‘just to prove it was possible!’ — “got straight to work superimposing Pussygrab Palace onto the old Hotel, so that Pussygrab and his Inner Circle could move immediately into the most luxurious and elegant residence Dodge City had to offer, bar none.”

 

The Hotelier clears his throat and adds, “To give you a sense of the wealth disparity we have succeeded in creating here, there are 884 guests in the Hotel, and only 8 members of Pussygrab’s Inner Circle, each group occupying the exact same amount of space! This, I think we can all agree, is truly what we as a society ought to be striving for.”

 

He clears his throat, then adds, “And, for the low price of $999,999, you too can purchase a timeshare in the Palace. Leave your email in the Comments section of this video for more info …”

 

Disconnecting from the image-feed as the Hotelier attempts to wipe off the shame in his eyes, I look around, finding myself still in the drafty side room where I ended up after my Conversion Therapy, and I wonder, not for the first time, whether I’m in one room, or two.

 

“Two, clearly,” says the Hotelier, winking at me before returning to the walk-thru, the American MC Escher dawdling behind him. “Here, as you can see, is one of seven Access Portals” — he touches what appears to be a solid section of wall — “a means of traveling, for those at the correct clearance level, between the Hotel and the Palace. A means of stepping, as it were, from the old Dodge City, the one we knew, in which the Rule of Law held sway and we felt as though the train was, so to speak, still on the tracks, and into the new one, the Empire of Pussygrab, the Glorious New Nation he has pledged to usher us — well, some of us — into.”

 

With that, the Hotelier disappears from the screen, presumably out of the Hotel, still visible on Netflix, and into the Palace, which no camera is yet able to record.

 

*****

SO I’M ALONE in the Superimposed Hotel, or alone watching myself in the Superimposed Hotel on Netflix, when the idea comes to me that perhaps, if I try leaving the room I’m in right now, I’ll emerge into the hallway I just saw onscreen and will thus manage to escape through the Access Portal. Perhaps, I think, the purpose of the Movie was to show me the Portal’s location, and to encourage me to find it before it disappears. An instruction video, not a mere entertainment.

 

And if I can just slip through, I go on thinking, perhaps I’ll wake from this nightmare and emerge back into the Real Dodge City, the one where …

 

I’m not so naive as to imagine that the Real Dodge City still exists — it is, in essence, a Pretend City now, a diorama, an ant farm — but I’m not sure this distinction holds any water. So I’m determined to find it anyway.

 

I can’t say exactly what gives me the confidence — perhaps the Conversion Therapy has indeed altered my way of thinking — but once the thought occurs to me, it remains embedded. So I get up, close the laptop, and try the door.

 

Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly, if this is all part of a sinister masterplan, or a symptom of reality’s total collapse) it’s unlocked!

 

Now I’m wandering a carpeted hallway I’ve never seen before, in the Hotel or the Palace, like a cardboard cutout on a Chutes & Ladders board, hoping to emerge through one of the Access Portals before it’s too late — though I can’t imagine how things could get any later than they already are.

 

When I find the Portal, I go through, setting off an alarm so loud I start running in terror, through the American MC Escher hallways, up staircases that lead down and along corridors that warp upward, until I make it outside, into the static of the Town Square, past the throngs of goose-stepping swamp things, and into … DaltonLand?

 

*****

I CATCH MY BREATH INSIDE A SCALE MODEL OF YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, under a big sign that reads Welcome to DaltonLand: in SwampWorld, this park no longer exists!

 

Savoring the fresh air (even if it’s artificially flavored), I pass geysers and canyons — all shrunken down to scale and made of cardboard — avoiding the distant signs that read ChaosLand (the near future or the distant past): Keep out! though I don’t doubt that, sooner or later, I’ll find myself among the cave people and giant spiders I can already see massing along the horizon, restrained only by what appears to be a velvet carnival rope.

AT SOME POINT during my foray into the Lobby to see the American Takashi Miike receive his award from the Hotelier for writing and directing The New Jews on such short notice, I find myself instead watching Netflix on a strange computer, alone in a drafty side room.

 

Someone must have escorted me in here, like a child who sneaks down late at night to see what his parents are discussing in the kitchen and, unwilling to go back to sleep, is set up with a video and a bowl of popcorn in the den. I can just make out the crackle of voices beyond the closed door, but I’m too tired to get up and check if it’s locked (either that, or I’m afraid of what I’d do if I found it was).

 

Turning my thoughts away from the door, which I’m now pretty sure is locked, I have a moment of vertigo as my consciousness wavers between that of the me sitting in this drafty side room and the me onscreen (do I really look like that??), but as soon as the Movie’s opening credits fade I lose all awareness that there’s any part of myself outside what’s going on, which is that Paul Sweetie, Col. Pussygrab’s First Mate, is dragging me down a cement hallway toward what appears to be an electric chair, muttering, “it’s only set on stun, it’s only set on stun.”

 

“We always begin on stun,” he adds, once I’m strapped in, feet outstretched on the footrest like I’m about to be treated to dinner and a Movie. “What we end on is, well, up to you.”

 

“So this, uh …” I ask, hoping some question will sound implicit in my trailing off.

 

“Conversion Therapy, yes,” Sweetie answers, “your name came up on a list. Don’t worry, it’s a free service.” He pauses, perhaps giving me the chance to ask a follow-up question.

 

Cautiously optimistic, I follow up with, “conversion from what to what?”

 

Sweetie smiles, donning a pair of yellow rubber gloves and a clown mask as he charges up the chair. “From what you are to what you will be.”

 

Here I do recoil, if only for a moment, into my more remote self, the one watching this all on Netflix, in the (comparative) comfort of the drafty room off the hall somewhere in the Hotel, which, come to think of it, is remarkably similar to this drafty room off the hall of …

 

I lose my train of thought when the electricity hits my gonads, zapping them long and hard, making my teeth knock together like wooden puppet teeth, woodchips raining down my throat.

 

When I gag loudly enough to disturb him, Sweetie pulls the plug, panting like he’s the one who just got zapped, and asks if I feel different yet.

 

Though part of me knows I should say yes and spare myself whatever future pain is coming, another part of me shakes its head. Whether the urge to defy is an end unto itself, or is based on some half-formed desire to undergo the therapy a second time, or simply to continue watching it on Netflix rather than facing whatever comes next, I can’t say. I just know I’m not ready for it to be over yet.

 

Sweetie clears his throat and says, “Then proceed,” and proceeds to shock me a second time, this time with more juice, like in Milgram’s obedience experiments at Yale.

 

Weird liturgical symbols fly inside my lids as Sweetie grunts in my ear, unless that’s the sound of my brains frying.

 

Next time he stops, I plan to shout “I’m changed! I’m changed!” But, once again, when he asks, I say, “Nope, gimme more.”

 

*****

SO HE DOES.

 

This time, my eyes vibrating like two eggs about to hatch, I’m rocketed out of my self and into a free-floating vision of Dodge City as a series of concentric towns, nested Dodge City’s, each presided over by its own Pussygrab, each one giant and green and sitting on an inflatable throne, bouncing with glee like a six-year-old who’s chugged a gallon of Diet Coke.

 

And beside each Dodge City is a smaller, nearly-identical one with a sign that reads DaltonLand: a theme park in which the moderate, even-tempered Professor Dalton won the election and became our Mayor instead.

 

Beyond these, marking the Outskirts of my vision, are a series of ChaosLand‘s, theme parks ruled over by lumbering cavemen and huge spindly birds, and what I’m left to wonder — as Sweetie eases up on the juice again — is whether what I just saw is real outside this building or only inside of it, in the vast fake kingdom of Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu …

 

“What?” he asks, and I realize I’ve been speaking aloud.

 

“Nothing,” I reply, struggling to retain the image of DaltonLand and my determination, though I know it’s a form of denial, to get myself out of this room and through the theme park gates as soon as I’m physically able, assuming such a theme park exists.

 

“Okay then,” he says, pulling up his clown mask to lick sweat from its neck flap. “Let’s get ya cleaned up.”

 

*****

SHIVERING WITH ICE WATER AND LYE, I find myself alone in the drafty room in the hall — one or the other of those rooms, if there are indeed two — watching a floating clown face that resembles Sweetie’s stare at me from the center of the strange computer I’ve been watching this all on.

 

At first I think it’s a screen-saver, so I just stare back, but then it grows agitated and says,”so …”

 

I shrug. “So … what?”

 

Now it smiles, and the purple smoke clears, revealing either that it really is Sweetie talking to me through something like a Netflix version of Skype, or else it’s a very good actor speaking from within a Movie scripted to sync up with whatever I say.

 

“So how do you feel, now that your Conversion Therapy has taken place?” he bats his eyes seductively, glowing with pride.

 

I feel fuzzy and unwell, not quite sure what he’s talking about, though it sounds more familiar than I wish it did. “I … I feel the same as I always have.”

 

Here he resumes laughing and the purple smoke gushes back up around his neck and begins to gush from the sprinkler system overhead as well, so now I’m choking and coughing in addition to everything that was already wrong with me.

 

“Oh you’re changed! You’re changed alright!” the clown-Sweetie cackles. “You just can’t remember what you used to be!! What you are now … that’s the new you!! Anything you think now, anything you see or feel or do … it’s the new you! It’s what we made you into!! If you don’t believe me, just check your gonads.”

 

*****

THE SCREEN TURNS BLACK as I’m taking this in, wondering how much is true and, if so, how I could ever tell. I certainly don’t, for the time being, have any intention of checking my gonads.

 

As I’m wavering in the limbo of these thoughts, trying to remember the way to DaltonLand, the next Movie automatically begins to play on Netflix.

 

Entitled The Superimposed Hotel, a tagline over the opening shot (of a man alone in a dingy room, coughing on purple smoke) reads: THE MOVIE THAT FINALLY ANSWERS THE QUESTION OF WHETHER YOU’RE LIVING IN ONE HOTEL OR TWO!!!!

I SIT WITHOUT BLINKING BEHIND MY COMPUTER as the next Movie automatically begins. Billed as a “Spiritual Sequel” to The New AryansThe New Jews picks up where the last left off:

 

Col. Pussygrab and his recently bleached Swamp Creatures are sitting in a lake house modeled pretty convincingly on Wannsee outside Berlin, eating croissants and discussing how best to kick off the Second Dodge City Genocide, itself a “Spiritual Sequel” to the First.

 

“Well, our main goal naturally is to kill as many possible,” says one of the New Aryans.

 

The others sip their cappuccinos and nod, savoring what appears to be both the coffee’s rich velvety flavor as well as the delicious notion of catalyzing mass murder.

 

“For old times’ sake,” another adds, “why don’t we begin with the Jews?”

 

More nods of assent.

 

“Once they’re pretty well exterminated, we’ll be able to move on to other, more motley demographics in relative peace.”

 

“Indeed,” adds another. “These things must be done right. A little respect for history, in terms of annihilating the Dodge City Jews, will go a long way. Where the First Dodge City Genocide left some Jews alive to breed and re-infest the town, ours will not. We must, like all great thinkers, learn from the mistakes of the past.”

 

I yawn, pretty sure I know where this is going. But then, like the Director has gauged the exact moment of audience disengagement, a curveball gets thrown in:

 

The most sinister of the New Aryans, who appears to be Pussygrab’s advisor — I’ll call him One-Fang Larry in honor of the dripping fang that protrudes like a necktie from his mouth to his bellybutton — clears his throat and says, “I hate to complicate matters, especially on such a festive occasion, but it must be pointed out that the Dodge City Jews are no longer as easy to identify as they once were.”

 

All eyes are on him, in a wide shot that takes in the whole table. Then the camera zooms in on his fang as he says, “Much as it pains me to say this, what we’re dealing with now is a race of New Jews …”

 

Here the action freezes and the title THE NEW JEWS: A RACIAL SPECTACULAR fills the screen, the letters vibrating over a Spaghetti Western synth track.

 

I’d like to say I shut my laptop here and go to bed, but that’s not what I do.

 

*****

AFTER THE TITLE CREDITS, the conference table discussion resumes, the synth fading out.

 

“As I was saying,” One-Fang Larry resumes, “the Jews grew smart in the decades since the First Genocide. Like cockroaches, which grow stronger from what doesn’t kill them, these surviving Jews are not the sitting ducks they used to be. They’ve cloaked themselves in clever, insidious ways. Names, addresses, faces, even blood-types … none of it’s as overtly Jewish as it used to be.”

 

Here Pussygrab cuts in, eyes wide with anger. “Are you saying, then, that these New Jews could be crawling among us?”

 

He itches his New Aryan skin as the camera swoops out to take in the frightened, suspicious expressions of those gathered around the table. Everyone’s eying everyone else, trying to sniff out the New Jews among them while, at the same time, surely preparing to defend themselves as well.

 

“That’s exactly what I’m saying,” One-Fang Larry replies. “They could be anywhere. They could be you,” he looks at one of the New Aryans, “or you,” he looks at another …

 

By the end of the scene, he’s looked at everyone except Pussygrab, whose gaze he’s studiously avoided.

 

“Well then,” Pussygrab says, standing up and motioning for the others to follow. “Bring me the most accurate New Jew detection software on the market. I want state-of-the-art. This Dodge City Genocide is going to be done right. Find me the very best!”

 

 

*****

THE SCREEN goes black here and I doze off until a knock on my door rouses me. Stumbling over to open it — though I know I should start being more careful — I see a minor Swamp Creature (a henchman or handmaiden) standing in the hallway, hand outstretched.

 

“Yes?” I ask, once this pose has been held longer than I can bear without responding.

 

“I’m here to collect your submission for the New Jews Identification Project,” he, she, or it says.

 

When I don’t respond, the Creature adds, “each Dodge City Citizen is required to submit their best attempt at devising a foolproof method for identifying the New Jews lurking among us. The Glorious Genocide that the Good Colonel has envisioned cannot take place without our dedicated participation.”

 

I look frantically around the Room until my eyes settle on a Room Service receipt, itemized with roast beef, mashed potatoes, and extra horseradish. I hand this over and say, “Here. Here’s my list.”

 

The henchman or handmaiden scoffs at my pitiable submission, but accepts it and shuffles off, leaving the door open wide enough to whisper, “If this or any other method implicates you as a New Jew, know you’ll be seeing us again.”

 

 

*****

IN THE QUIET of my Room after the list has been collected, my attention has nowhere to turn save for back to my computer, where, come to think of it, I can’t be sure it hasn’t been all along.

 

The Genocide’s ramping up: Pussygrab has assembled the entire Dodge City Population in Sacrifice Square and appears to be testing each New Jew detection method in turn, skewing, naturally, toward those that identify the widest possible swath of people.

 

This is skipped over in fast, brutal montage, and soon firing squads are executing row after row of men, women, and children, all lined up against the exposed brick facade of City Hall, blood pooling in a trough that runs along Main Street like a half-dug subway tunnel.

 

First to go are those Dodge City citizens whose Jewishness is overt — about seven in total — and then, according to the various New Jew identification schemes that Pussygrab has received, the executions spread outward, to incorporate the rest of the Dodge City Population. Everyone, it would seem, is outed as a New Jew by one method or another.

 

Then, inevitably, the deaths start hitting closer to home:

 

Now the Movie shows Pussygrab executing his junior advisors — “Just to be safe!” he shouts, over the noise of the firing squads, who’ve moved indoors — and now he’s executing his senior advisors, pacing his Palace (where in Dodge City is this located?) in agitation, until it’s just him and One-Fang Larry, ankle-deep in viscera.

 

They stand together, poring over the New Jew results, each wielding a jeweled saber.

 

“I’m sorry it’s come to this,” Pussygrab begins, “but the Second Dodge City Genocide will mean nothing if we are not thorough. We will fail to transcend the First if we let even a single New Jew slip through the cracks. History will not remember us kindly in that event.”

 

One-Fang Larry smiles and kneels down, head inclined in a pose of supplication that finds the tip of his fang resting on the floor. “Believe me, if there’s even the slightest chance that I am a New Jew, the last thing I’d want is to live on. By all means, kill me now.”

 

And Col. Pussgrab does, with a single deep slash across the throat.

 

 

*****

THE MOVIE PAUSES again here, giving its viewers (or viewer, if I’m the only one) a moment to breathe and reflect before the grim finale commences.

 

Then the grim finale commences:

 

Pussygrab’s alone in his Throne Room, cradling the slaughtered body of One-Fang Larry, his closest advisor and perhaps his only friend.

 

Surrounded by piles of data — the results of each New Jew identification method he’s tried — Pussygrab wades through the blood and mutters, “Now, the moment of truth, now the moment of truth … I mustn’t let my Genocide fall short, I mustn’t … ” over and over, until the Movie cuts to him sitting on his Throne with his jeweled saber in one hand and a strip of litmus paper in the other.

 

“Okay,” he mutters, “time to find out. If I’m a New Jew, I too must die. And if I’m not, I will rule this town forevermore, in untrammeled glory.” He turns to the screen here, breaking the fourth wall: “This is the evil of the New Jew, you see — it can lurk anywhere. Anywhere at all, inside any of us, in you, in me …”

 

Looking away from the camera, the synth score comes back up as he cuts his forearm with the saber and catches the blood on the litmus paper. He watches as it soaks through, turning red and pulpy in his hands, until it falls apart, apparently without yielding any definitive result.

 

He scowls and cuts himself again, this time catching his blood in a beaker, but, again, no verdict emerges.

 

Now, he looks imploringly at the corpse of One-Fang Larry, even going so far as to kick it with his jeweled slipper. “Hey, Lar’? Lar’?” He kicks it again, growing frantic. “Hey! A little help here? How do you work these damn things?”

 

When One-Fang Larry remains dead, Pussygrab starts slashing his wrists indiscriminately, bleeding onto more paper, more beakers, as well as buckets, sponges, sugar cubes and tea towels, each method claiming to be the best for identifying New Jews wherever they lurk.

 

“Am I one or not? Am I one or not?? Am I one or not???” he shrieks, louder and louder, as his New Aryan skin sloughs away and his green Swamp Skin shows through, losing its luster as his blood pours out.

 

The Movie ends with Pussgrab collapsed on his throne, translucent as a supermarket chicken.

 

Just before the credits, a banner crawls across the screen. It reads: and so the question remains — did the Second Dodge City Genocide succeed where the First fell short, or are the New Jews alive and well, in some dark corner of The Dodge City Gene Pool, already preparing to rise again?

 

When the screen goes black, I catch a reflection of my face and think, not without a certain glee, Here at least is one you didn’t kill!

 

 

*****

A KNOCK ON MY DOOR cuts this reverie short. My immediate reaction is to panic, certain that they’ve come for me at last, but when the Porter shouts “Room Service!” I get up and answer it.

 

Finding that the Movie has compressed my appetite into a hard lump in my lower intestine, I step over the steaming tray and drift, dazed, out into the hall and then down the main staircase to the Lobby, where it appears that a local version of the Great Japanese Horror Auteur Takashi Miike is being feted by the Hotelier for having written and directed The New Jews on such short notice, while, in the conference room directly adjacent, the KKK are preparing to hold a rally entitled Born This Way: A Celebration of Hooded Life.

WHEN I’VE COME BACK TO MY SENSES IN MY ROOM, I determine that the only reasonable course of action is to get on my computer and find something soothing to watch.

 

So I click onto Hulu and let stream the first thing that loads: a made-for-TV Movie called THE NEW ARYANS.

 

At first I disregard the set’s obvious similarities to Dodge City, but by the time Col. Pussygrab and his retinue of Swamp Creatures appears onscreen, it’s impossible to deny that what I’m watching is actually some form of news — either that, or else what I believe has been going on in reality has actually been nothing but some form of Cinema.

 

I sincerely hope it’s the latter, but now I’m so transfixed by the screen I can’t remember the distinction I was just trying to draw.

 

*****

SO I GO ON watching as Pussygrab and Co. schedule appointments at the Dodge City Bleaching Clinic to have their lips, assholes, and even their eyes bleached. This segment is done in choppy montage — we watch as their jaundiced eyes and weeping brown assholes are buffed to a gleaming white, as a lederhosen-clad children’s choir chants the word Purity over and over in the background.

 

Then the Swamp Creatures parade past the cameras to the Dodge City Skin Dept., where the shed skins of various past heroes and villains hang on shelves, somewhere between museum pieces and costumes for rent.

 

Here they ask the Proprietor to take down the skins of the Dodge City Aryans, unused since the last Dodge City Genocide finally wore itself down decades ago, and the perpetrators were skinned alive in Sacrifice Square, their bodies thrown into Dead Sir to decompose.

 

Now, with Pussygrab at the fore, the Swamp Creatures make a grand ceremonial gesture of donning these old Aryan Skins, covering their green scales and pustules as fully as possible.

 

Except, it’s not very possible at all: try as they might, their Swamp Bodies are too bulbous, too tentacular, to be zipped up and called white.

 

So, in a rage, Pussygrab directs the Camera Crew to follow him back to Sacrifice Square, where he calls on Dodge City’s last surviving Kosher Butcher to perform a crucial service:

 

“Shave us down,” he says. “Do not delay. It must be done. These Skins are miniscule. The last batch of Dodge City Aryans was nothing compared with us! We are men where they were mere boys!!”

 

The Kosher Butcher, wilting with a look of infinite resignation, runs an extension cord into the Square and warms up his Electric Flensing Knife, whispering under his breath in Hebrew, despite the none-too-subtle growls of the Swamp Creature nearest him.

 

Once the Knife beeps red, he pulls on a set of safety goggles and, still muttering, begins shaving the Creatures down.

 

This part, I have to admit, amuses me: I’m slouching behind my computer, eating Room Service pasta that must have appeared sometime during the last segment, as the Butcher flenses off a tremendous flurry of goiters, tumors, snouts, and tentacles, greenish-yellow blood spurting in all directions as Rammstein’s “Tier” plays unironically on the soundtrack.

 

*****

BY THE TIME IT’S DONE, the New Aryans are complete: the Swamp Creatures have vanished inside their Aryan Skins, which, now that they’ve been shaved down, cover all of them except their penises.

 

It’s strange to see Pussygrab and his retinue goose-stepping across Sacrifice Square, zipped into suits of gleaming white and platinum blonde, green erections in hand, dripping on the cobblestones.

 

TO BE CONTINUED … says the Hulu homepage, and immediately starts loading what appears to be a second feature in this series, entitled, predictably I suppose, THE NEW JEWS.

 

*****

I PASS OUT. When I come to, I can’t tell whether I’m looking at my computer screen or out my window.

 

Either way, what I see is a pile of tumors and tentacles in the Square, twitching gently and then less and less gently in the moonlight.

 

Soon, they’re twitching frantically, slithering around one another, jittering and conjoining like cut lizard tails struggling to regrow. I watch as a Swamp Totem creates itself in the Heart of Dodge City, pulsing and twitching in a way that slowly or quickly (by this point, I can’t tell) hypnotizes me.

 

My vision goes green and I enter a frenetic reverie in a mossy grove on the banks of Dead Sir, where the New Aryans have unzipped their white skin to reveal their green chests, and are wearing bulls’ horns and drinking from severed goat heads and burning children in a pit and howling — at the moon, or at some unseen effigy or god — and all I can think is, Swamp Mode is real, Swamp Mode is real, remember that Swamp Mode is real …

 

I pass out again in front of my computer, afraid that I will have forgotten whatever I’m supposed to remember by the time I wake up, which I don’t necessarily hope is anytime soon.

IN A SHOW OF SELFISHNESS AND APATHY I NOW DEEPLY REGRET, I kept to myself in the run-up to Dodge City’s 2016 Mayoral Election. I figured, as most people I know did, that Professor Dalton was a shoo-in, being, as he was, the only candidate officially running.

 

The race shaped up this way because Dodge City was empty for awhile after the resurrected Blut Branson led everyone but me back to the Desert.

 

After a few weeks, however, Nature decided to abhor the vacuum Branson left in his wake and the town re-filled with shitty new people. The populace grew quickly enough that a new Mayoral Regime was deemed necessary, but not so quickly that it produced a candidate to oppose Dalton (who, like me and Big Pharmakos and a few others, turned out never to have left Dodge City behind), so the Election was seen as a formality, a friendly cusp between the Old Era and the New.

 

I thus felt secure whiling my summer away in thrall to Movies, as I’d whiled away all my summers before it, planning to emerge from my Room just long enough to vote in the Booths set up in the Town Square on November 8, before returning to the comfort of my bed and the security of the knowledge that Dalton would rule the town with fairness and aplomb.

 

*****

BUT, IN AN HISTORIC TURN NO ONE SAW COMING, something very different transpired instead.

 

On the night before the Election, a rumbling and a groaning was heard throughout the Dodge City Airspace. I won’t pretend I didn’t hear it too, though I tried my best to tune it out, pressing my pillow over my head and thinking, Well, it’s just something going on out there, and I’m in here, safe and sound, so why worry?

 

In the morning, however, I could tell that something was off. My stomach was knotted up and my breath tasted foul, like I’d swallowed a family of sandflies in my sleep. I brushed my teeth and drank a pot of coffee, but this did nothing to dull the taste, nor did the box of Orange Tic Tacs I consumed on my way across the Lobby and out of the Hotel.

 

By the time I made it to the Town Square, I was pink-eyed and gagging as I waited in line with a lot of other people who looked about the same as I felt. I remember going into the Booth, I remember picking up the pen to box in Dalton’s name, and then …

 

*****

… I’m in the Bar, on a stool beside Big Pharmakos, watching Dodge City’s Cable Access News Station on the wall-mounted TV as someone I vaguely recognize sits at a desk beside someone else I vaguely recognize announcing that the Mayoral Election has gone, by an incredible landslide, to someone or something called Colonel Pussygrab.

 

Footage appears of an obese green-skinned Satyr, dripping algae and brackish water, dancing in the Town Square with both hands on its erection, pumping it furiously while belching and shouting, “I’m gonna fuck you all! Every last one of you!”

 

The footage cuts out just as the creature comes, thick greenish gouts spurting from its midsection, its head tilted back in laughter that seems to echo off the surrounding buildings.

 

“It would appear,” one of the anchors begins as the laughter fades out, “that this creature, which goes by the name Colonel Pussygrab, emerged from the depths of Dead Sir, the brackish swamp out back of Dodge City where we throw all our undesirables, sometime between midnight and two a.m. last night and, in a coup whose nature is still under investigation, managed to add his name to our Mayoral Ballots at the very last minute.”

 

The anchor beside him nods and cuts in with, “Now, how exactly this entity swayed the Vote of the majority of the Dodge City Populace is another matter entirely. But, yes, at the moment it does appear that Colonel Pussygrab is our new Mayor.”

 

Whatever else she was about to say is interrupted by the other anchor vomiting onto her lap. The camera zooms in on the steaming pinkish pile before cutting to a photo of Professor Dalton’s face, bruised and streaked with tears in what looks like an enhanced interrogation room.

 

The atmosphere in the Bar is tense, all of us drinking, none of us making eye contact, while we wait out the commercial break.

 

*****

“Now, live from the Town Square,” says another anchor after the break, “we bring you Colonel Pussygrab’s Victory Speech.”

 

“I vow to make Dodge City um, um, um,” the Colonel intones into the microphone he holds with one hand, crushing the head of a kneeling body wearing a Dalton mask against his crotch with the other. “I will … uh … uh … oh God!”

 

He breaks into frenetic cackling as he ejaculates into the kneeling subject’s mouth. Then he removes the Dalton mask and holds it up so we can see his green snotty semen dripping onto the cobblestones.

 

The Bar, silent before, is even more silent now. The time for groaning and jeering and perhaps even discussion will come, I assume, but it isn’t here yet and it feels a long way off.

 

I look at Big Pharmakos beside me, but he won’t turn to meet my gaze, so I look back at the screen as a parade of Satyrs, all green, all naked, all sporting angry erections, marches from the background to stand beside the Colonel on the podium, staring straight at the camera and grunting. They lick their lips and snort through their noses and some of them spit gobs of phlegm at what I can only imagine is the crowd gathered below them, just off-camera.

 

“I think I’m gonna head back to my Room,” I whisper to Big Pharmakos after I’ve choked down as much of my beer as I can. “Try to relax a little.”

 

When he doesn’t reply, I show myself out.

 

*****

CROSSING THE TOWN SQUARE from the Bar to the Hotel is an upsetting interlude. I hurry with my head down, past the cameras and the crowd and the smell of swampwater in the air, through the Lobby where everyone’s transfixed on the same broadcast we were all watching in the Bar — now the Colonel’s shouting, “I’m gonna try it anal! Everybody watch me try it anal!” — and up to my Room, where I lock the door and boot up my MacBook.

 

As I get online, I find myself torn between a desire for raw escapist entertainment and a desire for cold hard news. On the one hand, I want to be anywhere but here; on the other, I can’t look away from whatever here’s becoming.

 

To postpone the decision — I have tabs for Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu all open in my browser — I pick up the landline and call for Room Service. “Hi,” I say. “Can you book me three meals a day until further notice? I think I’m gonna be in here awhile.”

 

The scared-sounding Porter says “sure” and hangs up.

 

Waiting for dinner to arrive, I lie on my bed and fall into a dream. In the dream, everything’s green and smells like rot and there’s a slurping sound echoing off the walls of … a chamber of some sort? A dungeon? The green’s so thick and the smell so revolting it’s hard to tell, but then, just as the Porter’s knock on my door wakes me, I catch a glimpse of myself hunched over a soggy sheet of paper, crayon in hand, putting a fat wet X beside the name Pussygrab in some hellish simulation of the Dodge City Mayoral Election.

 

Spluttering, I roll out of bed, open the door, and fall upon my steak and eggs before the Porter’s removed his hand from the tray.

 

Munching steak and knuckle-skin once the Porter’s extricated himself, I settle back behind my MacBook and press Play on the first option Netflix gives me.

 

For a minute, the screen boils green. Then the image resolves into what — much as I wish it weren’t — is clearly the Town Square.

 

In the Square, as this Movie has chosen to represent it, a scale model of Dodge City has been laid out, filling the open space with miniature versions of the buildings we all occupy, including the Hotel I’m watching it in now.

 

As soon as I’ve recognized this for what it is, the Satyrs descend upon it, romping from building to building, smashing them and tearing them off the their bases and, in some cases, eating them.

 

One Satyr stabs another in the eye with the radio antenna from the model Cable Access Station and green blood spurts out, covering the screen, and his shrieks are so loud I turn my MacBook’s volume down to zero and run into the shower with my clothes on, holding onto the tiled wall as the whole building shakes when, I assume, the Satyrs rip the model Hotel off its pretend foundation.

 

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.”