By now we’re all pretty well settled into on our annual daylong Dalton Noir lecture event in the Community Gathering Space of the Dodge City Public Access TV Station. After the usual pedantic opening remarks, in which he reminded us of the many salient reasons why we’re gathered here today to witness his Notes to Noir and not, for the love of God, Notes on Noir (Dear Dalton: by this point we get it, or at least get that we don’t get it and aren’t losing any sleep), the talk began in earnest.

 

“And that’s why noir is good for the people,” said Dalton, a number of glints playing across his eyes like dappling light in a rocky stream. Actually, it’s just my sunglasses. I nudge them up my nose to check, see that without them all does indeed look different, undappled, then I nudge them back down, to be in line with the general sunglass requirement, or expectation anyway, of the day’s theme.

 

Not that it’s a costume party.

 

There’s a papier-mache effigy of a dark and brooding figure, cloaked in mystery though technically naked, sitting on a folding chair just beside Dalton on the dais, representing noir, or The Roving Carnivorous Angel of Noir, as Dalton puts it. It’s more of a pygmy head-shrinking, or head-shrunk, looking sort of figure to my eye, rather than anyone whose being smacks, to me, of an essential roving noir aspect deep in the viscera, but what do I know. I usually start off the day staring the figure down (I say “usually” here just for fun, since this is, technically speaking, still my first year in Dodge City, though it sure doesn’t feel like it), and end it … well, who knows.

 

Dalton has burned off the morning hours, as he always does, talking about Jim Thompson and Robert Coover, whom none of us has read, reminding us, incessantly, of how, because we are none of us rank (one has a goddamn right to hope, by this point) beginners, he’s not going to tax his wad taking us wading in the kiddie pools of Chandler nor Hammett nor Highsmith nor Ellroy nor nor nor nor … NOIR!

 

The NOIR! horn, routed through a big guitar amp, has been going off with ever-greater frequency as evening comes down the ‘pike, and the drinks, which’ve been flowing freely since just after dawn, continue to do just that. Indeed, they resemble not a leaking but a gushing faucet.

 

I’m sloshed in with the crowd, tipping back and forth on a folding chair.

 

We all clap wantonly throughout the Professor’s talk, more so now than earlier since the NOIR! horn has been going off more, as befits the shape of the day’s festivities, held once a  year, in whichever season best suits the larger scheme of Dalton’s affairs.

 

A few interns from the high school run logistics – one helps Dalton with his mic and moderates a little, like if Dalton needs a passage read aloud in a funny voice or anything cued up or any rhetorical questions asked; another runs the camera and handles the broadcast; and a third – our favorite – operates the NOIR! horn, slamming it down hard whenever in the course of the lecture feels appropriate (almost all the time), and, whenever it goes off, we all take a big long drink, refill if necessary, and go on. Yet another high schooler – name of Squint – operates the drinks table, lavishly laid out with a little help from a mayoral discretionary fund.

 

I’m sitting next to Big Pharmakos, who has plastic bags full of clear liquor taped all up and down his body, and a very long, sharp straw with which, on one end, he punctures their hides and, on the other, sucks. “I am draining myself dry,” I imagine him saying, though I don’t believe he has actually said this as of yet.

 

It’s Dalton’s job to keep talking throughout all of our interpretive measures, rolling his eyes if necessary, but not clamming up on his pace. You can see his fingers, crab-like, gripping hard onto the fat frayed edges of his Coover volumes, bearing down sharp enough to tear perforations, so the pages come to look like film strips on one side, I’d imagine or have been told.

 

He makes a late-in-the-game switch to what he calls Exegetic Migratory Patterns in the “Casual Buffet Noir” of Laird Hunt. The NOIR! horn goes crazy. Nobody wants a brand new topic this late in the day. Squint, manning the bar, can barely keep up with the droves coming his way.

 

****

 

By the time the surprise visitor entered, or stood up from the crowd where he’d been hiding, it’d become a vast and manic spectacle, bigger-feeling than the actual size of the space it’s occurring in (unless it really is occurring elsewhere as well, and this just the tip of some iceberg).

 

Big Pharmakos jabbed me with his sharp straw as the surprise visitor lumbered up to the dais. He leaned in to whisper something that, due to all the shouting and commotion that rose up just then, I didn’t catch.

 

When I looked back at the dais, upon which Dalton and the papier-mache Angel were propped, I saw a third figure, a very old man in a fur-lined suede jacket with a wooly skiing cap pulled down low over his eyes, and layers and layers of wool and flannel encasing him under that. He walked not with a cane but with two antique-looking crutches, wooden, polished, and buffed, with leather straps hanging off here and there.

 

Dalton attempted to go on with his by-now-nearly-fully-unraveled lecture, but everyone knows how poorly he takes to being interrupted. Soon, we knew, his spirit would be far from his body, out walking in more pacific climes, gathering evidence for some entirely new case, having left the Question of Noir to twist and flicker in the wind of an earlier age.

 

Big Pharmakos leaned in toward me again, punctured bags leaking all over his body like he’d been stabbed.

 

He made an expression that induced me to lean in and listen, flexing my ears so as to cut through the room’s dinging melee. “That’s Norman Morrison,” he rasped. “Former 10th grade history teacher at the high school. Used to call him Normal Morrison. Went into reclusion years ago, like years years ago. No one’s heard from him in all that time, though rumors have circulated as to his not being dead, ‘nor even gone,’ as they say. A guard at the grocery store once claimed to have seen him shucking walnuts in the canned goods section at three in the morning on the security camera feed, but the footage wasn’t recorded and the guard himself retracted his story, under, some have claimed, significant duress, by noon the next day. Normal was senile before he even left, and look at him now.”

 

We look up at the dais. Dalton’s spirit has vanished. Its body is a crumpled tarp, tan with skin remnants.

 

Morrison sits beside it. He’s arranged the Noir Angel like a dummy beside him, and clipped Dalton’s mic, which had been buzzing pitiably, onto his fibrous lapel.

 

“They … this thing on?” Morrison smiles and tilts his eyes, peering through the narrow slit over his beard and under his cap. Then bursts into laughter. “Just having a little fun with you all! I know it’s on!” he tips the dummy back and forth on his knee, slapping its back with his palm. A cloud of paper dust rises into the air, and settles into Morrison’s beard and eyebrows.

 

The high schoolers hover above their respective buttons.

 

“They have said … you, perhaps, have said, that I disappeared. That I was gone for good.” His eyes drink in the crowd’s mixed reaction to his appearance and grow visibly drunker on it. Someone stands up to leave or open a window, then sits back down without going anywhere.

 

“Well, I’m here to tell you that I did not. I’m here to tell you that, well, here I am.” He pauses, sweeping Dalton’s books onto the floor.

 

“Just give me a second to arrange my notes here,” he coughs, emptying a number of sugar packets onto a sheet of lined paper that he’d pulled from his jacket and tried to smooth out on the desk in front of him.

 

He starts agitating the piles of sugar with his fingertips, tapping each pile once, and then leans back to read the result. “This is how I write now,” he explains. “And thus how I read.”

 

He touches another pile, waits for the sugar crystals to scatter, then reads the new configuration aloud. “Ah yes,” he says, “That reminds me. I almost forgot to tell you all about the Island Horde.”

 

The room crackles louder, closer to action. Some audience member heads topple sideways and jerk back upright, burping loud and ether-smelling.

 

“In my years away, I traveled far to the south, and to the east, out on the water, under other skies.”

 

“That man hasn’t left his house in longer than any of us has been alive,” mumbles Big Pharmakos in my ear, his voice mealy like he’s trying to convince himself.

 

“My journey took me,” Morrison continues, narrowing his eyes in what looks like Big Pharmakos’ exact direction, “to the island of the Island Horde, where,” he picks up the pygmy, “this good fellow became my lieutenant in what was to be an historic takeover.”

 

He and the doll both toggle their heads in affirmation. He rifles through his person until he finds more sugar packets, then empties them in the same way as before:

 

“After many years of hard struggle, gladly committing the unthinkable, I, or I should say ‘we,’ succeeded in conquering the entire province of the Island Horde, and now I, or, again, ‘we’,’ stand before you happy to report that I am, or We are, if you like, Kings of the Island Horde.”

 

Another crackle in the crowd, and then someone shouts, “Kings of the Island what?”

 

The high schooler above the button doesn’t miss his cue. He slams down hard, so that Morrison’s answer comes out, “Kings of Island NOIR!”

 

The crowd goes wild. Squint gets right down to pouring drinks.

 

The horn keeps going, drowning out the rest of Morrison’s speech. The room resounds with NOIR! NOIR! NOIR! in constant rhythm, as Dalton’s spilled Thompson and Coover volumes float by in a puddle-layer like a Lazy River at an amusement park.

 

This is how the day ends. Dalton’s deflated tarp-like carapace has been, I imagine, folded neatly and stored in a back room, tied with a bungee cord.

 

Big Pharmakos and I leave together, squeezing through the frantic bottleneck of the doorway, and out onto the eventually quiet streets, laughing at the difficulty of a thing like using one’s feet to stand.

 

Once it gets quieter I begin to play back over the image of Morrison and the papier-mache pygmy, his lieutenant, speaking as one. Then I get to thinking about Island Noir, trying to picture it, or at least to feel its more prominent contours.

 

“What’s that?” asks Big Pharmakos, snapping awake in mid stride.

 

“Island Noir,” I reply, wondering how many times I’ve repeated this phrase so far tonight.

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