It would be no exaggeration to say —

 

I don’t know, nothing comes close. The people of Dodge City are upset enough to do something beyond what they can even think of to do.

 

You promise people a novel and deliver a couple of short stories? I’ll admit that doesn’t sound so bad to me, but I’m not from around here and my taste is forgiving. Not so the people of Dodge City. Not when it comes to Blut Branson’s novel. Maybe people, some people, aren’t ready to give up on him altogether, but the general feeling is, “The next time he shows his face it better be Light in August.”

 

Dogs wander with their heads down and their tongues hanging so slack they almost scrape the sidewalk. Citizens sporadically shoot them then call their neighbors and shout “CLEAN IT UP!!”

 

Michael Shannon is long gone (another midnight convoy). He’s either safe or in a kind of danger that we can’t be held responsible for, unless we’ve rattled him off his center and he’s consequently lost his … man, I can’t focus at all. I almost just abandoned this whole thing I was about to write and free-associated about Palmer Eldritch instead. A waiter at a bar once told me that was the most terrifying thing out there, but really it was him that was terrifying and I got out of there as quick as I could, though outside it wasn’t much …

 

Sorry. Things have been weird. Ever since I passed out at the Blut Branson short story reading after eating all those K. City ribs and … in any case, we’re all arranged in an auditorium now and the Mayor is saying how we all need to settle down and take it easy on ourselves and each other and just give ourselves (and each other) a little time to heal after the trauma we’ve all been through, and not to rush these things, and not to discount them, and …

 

It’s like a big high school guidance assembly where everyone’s supposed to get together and just mope until something’s over.

 

The Mayor shows two videos, “positing other towns,” he explains, “to help take our minds off the tragedy that has befallen this one.” He looks out the window at the half-mast flag as he says this, and his eyes linger agitatedly on it for a moment, like he’s not sure it’s quite at half mast and is debating asking someone to go out there and work on it.

 

THE FIRST VIDEO STARTS UP: It’s pretty short and I get woozy. I feel like I’m acting in that Sebald scene about the herring fishery when he was a boy, and how deep and dark the water was … but the film’s about a town functioning under a disease or other science-fictional condition. It makes it so that everyone there went to high school together. Like there was only ever one class, and everyone around was in it. There’s that uneven aging thing going on where all the people that graduated together at 17 and 18 have spread out in age to fill all the roles — some are children, some are high schoolers again, some are those high schoolers’ parents (this gets a little rise out of us), some are the teachers, some are retirees, some are ancient, and quite a few are dead of natural causes or soon to be born (in many cases to pregnant high schoolers).

 

“It’s just a film about a feeling,” says the director in the DVD’s Q&A feature, which starts up automatically when it’s over. “The feeling that I went to high school with everyone I know … you know?”

 

THE NEXT VIDEO STARTS UP after a prodigious fumbling-with of equipment and myriad audio issues. It tells more of a linear story. 

 

It’s the story of a hometown kid from like Nebraska or one of the Dakotas whose big ambition is to be a singer-songwriter in the vein of Jason Molina. “All he ever wanted was to be a singer-songwriter in the vein of Jason Molina,” is the tagline. So he practices a ton of covers, writes some of his own stuff, plays nonstop, wins the admiration of most people by the time he’s 17, even changes his name to Jason Molina, and then — this is the big plot point — mails in a demo and wins a NATIONAL SINGER-SONGWRITER CONTEST.

 

The prize is that he gets to spend the next summer at a Singer-Songwriter Camp in the Catskills. “The Iowa of Singer-Songwriter Camps in the Catskills” is its tagline.

 

So he goes away. This marks the end of PART I.

 

PART II opens with Jason Molina’s return from the Singer-Songwriter Camp at the end of the summer. He’s a completely new man. He’s been cast in a new image, rebranded. He’s been scrubbed clean of his whole sensitive-bro rural American vibe and turned into a wistful English balladeer with a few brawly / laddish aspects mixed in, for edge and sex appeal. He’s changed his name to Frank Turner, has a couple of albums out already, and claims not to recognize anyone in the town.

 

He comes back with a manager to do a show, just one stop along the Frank Turner: Badlands Tour, and people accost him. “Jason!” they shout. “You’re home! What’s with the British accent? Why are you singing about blacking out in strange flats in East London and being a Wessex Boy and drinking with your friends on the cathedral grounds in Westminster?”

 

His manager restrains them from charging the stage. He leaves town in a midnight convoy.

 

It should end here, but it doesn’t. As his career gets huge, especially with his new album Tape Deck Heart, and especially on the Scandinavian and Eastern European Festival Circuit, the people of his hometown in Nebraska / One of The Dakotas start transforming things to match his songs. They change the names of stores, tear up the asphalt and put down cobblestones, start serving rural English fare and ales, chuck out their old racisms and acquire new ones.

 

They tear down the Jason Molina graffiti and pull his albums from the stores. Now it’s all Frank Turner all the time.

 

 

I sneak out of the auditorium, holding my belly in a sick-looking way at anyone who looks.

 

*****

Out in the parking lot, I reach in my pocket for a tissue and pull out a wad of printed pages. It takes me a while to see what they are: a third Blut Branson short story. Michael Shannon must have slipped it in my pocket when I was passed out at the reading.

 

Here’s the flash version:

 

As I’m backing out of a parking space I feel my back tire squish something biological. Fuck, I think, a cat. I put my hazard lights on and get out. I expect to see a tail under my back tire, but instead I see the edges of a diaper and a pool of baby-filling. Fuck, I think, a baby.

 

As I’m looking around, trying to determine if getting quickly out of here is my best move, a woman carrying a bag of groceries appears behind me. She takes in the damage. “Sorry,” she says. “I just parked him there for a minute, while I ran in.” She indicates the convenience store.

 

“You parked him in a parking space?”

 

“Yeah,” she replies, eyeing the meter like maybe the reason I’m surprised is that the time’s expired.

 

She shrugs, hands me the groceries, and bends down to scoop up the baby-material. Strange but true, it all hangs together, even though most of it’s liquid. None is left on the ground.

 

She clutches it against her chest and I give her her groceries back. “Sorry about that,” she says, looking at my back tire. “It won’t happen again.”

 

The thing is, it does. The very next day, in a different part of town, I back out and run over a baby again.

 

The same woman comes out, this time with a pair of boots she’s had resoled, and again gathers up the crushed liquid and says it won’t happen again.

 

It keeps happening, day after day, in what becomes a rhythm. The woman and I become casual friends. “It was,” I get in the habit of proclaiming, “the only constant in my life during those years.”

 

THEN, THIRTY YEARS LATER, I’m shaving at a sink at the YMCA when a young man takes the sink next to me, laying out his cream and razor. He looks at me several times, as if trying to make sure I am who he thinks I am.

 

When he decides that I must be, he says, “Sorry to bother you, but I just wanted to say hello. You probably don’t remember me, but you used to run me over with your car all the time when I was a baby.”

 

I smile. Shaving cream glops onto my T-shirt. “Of course I remember you,” I say.

 

He smiles too. “You know, back then, I never understood why my mom kept parking me there, knowing what would happen. But, over the years, I think it’s started to get clearer. Just part of growing up, I guess, right?” he says, and is gone.

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