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?”