The guy and I set out. The one who killed himself for everyone but me. He doesn’t appear to feel called-upon to explain anything along the “why me / why him” axis.

 

I don’t force the issue.

 

It seems clear that there’s no real debate around the thing to do being to wander on. There isn’t any “toward / away from” material to work with, since, aside from the node upon which he and I were introduced, there’s nothing at all here to distinguish anywhere from everywhere.

 

We don’t even have at our disposal a time of day or night. That’s all former-world stuff (and maybe next-world stuff too).

 

Just before we stop standing around, he says, “Here’s my decision,” in such a way that I can tell that, in the process of telling me what his decision is, he’ll also be making a completely new one.

 

As it turns out, he doesn’t say anything else. He seems to know his point has been made.

 

Now we’re walking.

 

He starts extemporizing about someone called “Bob Preston.” I’m about 85% certain he means Bob Dylan, but I’m wary of correcting him … warier, I think, than I thought I’d be.

 

This feeling frames him differently: until now, I’d wanted to see myself as about 10 to 12 years his elder (were he still alive), and thus about 1.5x further along in life, not quite on a mentor-level but a solid step up.

 

This no longer seems like it’s necessarily so. There’s a menace about him, as he goes on and on about Bob Preston, that I can tell I need to keep a safe distance from. My confidence in thinking of him as my “Sidekick” further wanes. “How about Comrade?” I propose to myself.

 

“What?” He asks.

 

“Bob Comrade,” I reply, not thinking altogether clearly.

 

“Bob Preston,” he corrects, pausing for a moment to make sure I’ve got it before going on.

 

*****

MINUTES, DAYS, something like that, pass.

 

We’ve managed to snack, but now thirst gets us in a real way.

 

We’re both heavily under the influence of where we are.

 

PERFECT TIMING: a well appears before us.

 

“A mirage,” says my Comrade, but he’s wrong.

 

This time, I’m not afraid to tell him.

 

“This time, I’m not afraid to tell you you’re wrong,” I tell him.

 

“Tell me what?” he says, a moony swoop on his face.

 

But it doesn’t matter. Since we’ve gone on walking while thinking and talking, we’ve made it to the edge of the water.

 

We look into it.

 

As it turns out, we’re both wrong: it is neither a mirage nor a well.

 

It is a deep, deep pit, filled with water. It’s about the width of a manhole, the water level just a foot or so beneath the lip of desert sand it’s punched into.

 

We creep right up.

 

Peering over, we see that it’s stuffed heavy with bodies, floating single file the way they say people get racked up the steepest, iciest part of the climb on Mt. McKinley [some family friend told me this once].

 

Looking down, I can see the top of one head and the insinuation of a great many more bodies beneath it.

 

The funny thing is that the topmost one is not at the surface of the water, the way a floating body seems like it ought to be. There’s a full body-length of unoccupied water-space.

 

Something trembles in me at the thought of this — a premonition of way more coming my way than I should responsibly be having a premonition of. It’s like the feeling when too many coffee beans rush out of one of those wall-mounted dispensers and you know they’re going to overflow the bag but you can’t push in the handle to stop the flow quickly enough.

 

At this point, my Comrade, who doesn’t appear to be looking where I’m looking, offers the following:

 

“That’s where the corporeal victims went.”

 

He pauses, giving me a chance to look, as if he’s just drawn my attention to something I hadn’t noticed.

 

He goes on to describe — obliquely as hell — the nature of these corporeal victims. A tone of shame creeps in, like the fact of there being corporeal victims at all is something he wants to downplay.

 

It seems like he means the corporeal victims of the Dodge City Genocide, but something in the way he says it makes me think that perhaps it’s a Group Suicide he means instead — the one he took part in for everyone but me.

 

He dips his foot down into the space reserved for him. Without his having to say it, I understand that’s what the body-length between the surface and the topmost body is … and I wonder if, for everyone else in the world, for whom he’s dead, they would see a body there. Perhaps it’s only me that sees an empty space in this Mass Watery Grave (MWG).

 

I feel, without knowing why, hugely glad that this empty space is there. It seems like, if the MWG were full, some awful circuit would be completed; some flip switched, a horrible machine sprung into action.

 

Like setting out to dig to China in the backyard one day and actually succeeding.

 

“If the pit were Full,” I say, and he shushes me in such a way I can tell he knows just what I mean.

 

*****

MUCH LATER, after we’ve recovered from the MWG (I’ll admit we both sipped a few mouthfuls from its surface-area, to ward off total thirst-death), we come upon an encampment.

 

Two encampments.

 

“Movie sets way out in the desert,” he says. “Just let you stew on that.”

 

The encampments strike me as more conceptual than actual. Maybe these are the real mirages.

 

The first is a kind of slanted-Hollywood type set-up wherein there’s a special rule on the books such that everyone who auditions for any part in a movie has to get it.

 

The truth of this is apparent in the air; no one needs to tell me.

 

So the director either has to choose the very first people who audition and turn everyone else away, or — as is more common — make hundreds upon hundreds of iterations of the film, with all these different casts.

 

What we’re standing around in now is the run-off or long-term effect of this. There’s trash everywhere, people shuffling around reciting lines that they haven’t quite memorized or that haven’t quite been written yet, a few very old and exhausted-looking directors roaming through the human stew, trying to direct for a few seconds here, a few seconds there.

 

My Comrade and I have the feeling of cattle drivers stopping in a rare town along our route to barter for supplies and get our equipment worked on. Or traders plying the Silk Road.

 

One of those directors comes up to us, looks us over, mumbles one thing, then mumbles, “Oh forget it.”

 

Instead of walking away, he stands there in front of us for a long time.

 

“30,000 Movies,” he tells me in confidence, later on.

 

*****

FINALLY, we get enough of that.

 

We make our way into the other encampment, where the rule is: every ordinary person who ever wished to switch places with a celebrity has gotten their wish.

 

There’s a strange mix of people with celebrity shells — Bret Easton Ellis, Paul Schrader, Lindsay Lohan, James Deen — but emitting a dull, dead-looking vibe, clearly stupefied inside — intermixed with completely ordinary people radiating genius and drive, as if a dude who worked at Foot Locker in Tempe, AZ were internally possessed by the selfhood and memory and well-oiled thought patterns of Bret Easton Ellis or Dan Chaon.

 

My Comrade and I mix in this society for a little while, managing to con a can of Sprite off the very docile and confused shell of Josh Ritter, then we move on.

 

*****

OUR LAST STOP before calling it a night is a tableau in which a 10-year-old boy sits watching 70’s-style local championship wrestling on a TV set up completely alone atop a sand dune.

 

There is no power cord.

 

The TV is on mute, and the boy is utterly glued to it. The wrestlers have those Mexican-style full-head facemasks on.

 

Nearby is a bed in which two middle aged bodies sleep.

 

This jogs a memory: earlier today, in our Coming Clean phase, my Comrade told me that his one joy, as a young child, was to watch local wrestling on TV at midnight on Saturdays.

 

If he did copious chores and stayed on his best behavior all week long, his parents would consider letting him watch in their bedroom (the one TV in the house), on mute, while they slept.

 

We look at the tableau of this exact scene now, posed in the desert. It seems to me that we must be entering a realm in which our lives, or just his life, will be arrayed, museum-style, for our edification and entertainment as we continue to make our way deeper in.

 

“Is that you as a boy?” I ask my Comrade, mostly just to confirm that he’s seeing what I’m seeing.

 

He looks where I’m looking, then at me. “Don’t get too cozy,” he says. “This is a one-time thing.”

 

SO MUCH FOR THAT.

 

We roam more.

 

I can see now that we will never “return to Dodge City.” That kind of ending belongs to another genre.

 

Dodge City — or some city — will, rather, simply grow up around us again, after enough wandering and down-time, as if inevitably, like a fungus. It will be the case, for a while, that there’s nothing but endless desert in every direction, and then the other thing — the us being in Dodge City thing — will take back over, and have its turn as the case, until the desert comes back yet again.

 

It’s not like a super-complicated alternation to get the hang of, once you’ve been around a little bit.

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