HAVING RESOLVED TO TAKE MY STAND on the ground of Blut Branson’s abandoned film set, I gather up my flashlight and the camcorder and memory stick I bought at ULTRA MAX over the weekend and make my way out of my Room and past the Hotel’s front desk, where a man who attempted suicide by poison but was resuscitated after 72 hours is haggling over his bill. “I shouldn’t be charged for that time!” he shouts. “Not full price anyway! I didn’t think I’d ever be in this position, so how can you expect me to have saved for it? I didn’t even bring my wallet. That was the only kindness I showed myself!!”

 

“As a Hotel, our business is to rent you a room, at a fixed rate per day,” replies the implacable concierge. “What you do in there is your business.”

 

The man grows so livid he opens his mouth without producing any sound, and leaves it open. Perhaps, I think, far from thanking a higher power for his miraculous recovery, he’ll simply default to suicide again, here on the spot even, if he has any poison left.

 

I make my way out, wondering if we ever learn from our mistakes.

 

*****

By the time I make it to the Outskirts, it’s late dusk. I turn on my flashlight, sweeping the terrain for any sign of Branson’s set, which the locals often refer to but superstitiously refuse to visit.

 

For a long time I don’t see anything but lean-to’s and shanties, rundown houses and former stores, car bodies without wheels and, twice, piles of dead dogs. For reasons I can’t explain, I have the thought, on both occasions, that these sinister piles are concealing something even more sinister — that the gross mass of rotting dogflesh is more decoy than travesty.

 

I don’t explore this thought beyond filing it away for use in a possible future film.

 

Finally, just at the point where I find myself debating whether to turn back, maybe shoot some footage of those dead dogs and call it a day, a row of torchlights appears on the horizon, making me feel like a medieval exile, seeking succor in the territories. The idea excites me: perhaps, as a Director, this will be my identity. I’ll show up at defunct sets along the road and, under guise of seeking shelter, take charge of the situation.

 

I’ll be somewhere between a Mayor and a Director, I think, imagining a series of abandoned towns lined up and waiting for me in a long row between here and the end of my life. I wonder who will witness these films, or is that the fatal question, the one that will keep me from making them? I file it away, for now, under maybe.

 

*****

I CROSS INTO THE CIRCLE OF LIGHTS, keeping my shoulders back and my chin up so whomever’s here doesn’t pounce, if they’re the type to. When I did karate as a child, that was the takeaway: well-trained people don’t win fights, they avoid them because of how they carry themselves.

 

All around me are plywood facades, half-finished buildings, marquees bearing two or three letters at most. Pickaxes piled in wheelbarrows. Like a miniature Dodge City, built by Blut Branson and his assistants in preparation for a film that never happened.

 

It’s impossible to tell if the disrepair is due to the buildings never having been finished, or if they’ve degraded in the years since preproduction ceased. Either way, it’s a shantytown now.

 

So here I am. In the main square I see nothing but children, and not very strong or well-looking ones at that. They lurch around, falling to their knees every few steps, carrying plastic plates away from a fire where the biggest among them are doling out what looks like squash and rice. The scene reminds me of the charity dinners the Quakers used to set up in front of their meetinghouse on summer Fridays downtown.

 

I approach the fire, figuring I’ll ask for a plate and thereby ingratiate myself by breaking bread, etc.

 

But before I get there, a searing pain in my left ankle brings me down. I find myself sitting on a piece of foam painted to look like a cobblestone, surrounded by tiny peering faces, not so much deformed as unformed. The one that bit me is now chewing a knob of my flesh. The gesture seems self-contained: I do not believe it will be repeated.

 

The others simply open and close their mouths like they think they’re breathing underwater. It takes me a moment to see them for what they are, or were:

 

FETUSES.

 

They look almost like babies but not. Their faces are — I make a note of this phrase in the verbatim section of my brain — too innocent. I immediately consider this as a possible title for my film.

 

As I sit with them, listening to their low, mournful chatter, I remember a story Big Pharmakos told me when we were very drunk one night early in my time in Dodge City:

 

“Not that long ago,” Big Pharmakos began, in the bar of the Hotel, which I did not yet know would be my residence for the next four years at least, “there was a scandal at the abortion clinic. After decades of protests, attacks, even a few murders, the Dodge City Pro-Life League came up with a far more radical approach. Instead of killing the aborters, who, after all, would simply be replaced with others just like them, these Pro-Lifers thought, why not address the problem itself by reanimating the aborted fetuses?”

 

Here, sitting on the foam-cobblestones of the shantytown, I look at my companions — my cast & crew, I think, a bit prematurely perhaps — the living embodiments of Big Pharmakos’ story which, at the time, I’d had more than a little trouble believing.

 

“So, using a technology the nature of which no one understands,” Big Pharmakos continued, “these Pro-Lifers snuck into the trash behind the clinic late one night, after a big haul of fetuses had been deposited, and took them all out, brought them back to a lab somewhere and, well … as far anyone knows, regrew them in tanks, under heat-lamps.”

 

The strange thing about these fetuses, I think, studying them more closely now, is that they were given the chance to gestate for far longer than they would have had they remained in the womb. For them, there never came the point of “now it’s time to make your way out” … they just grew on and on in there, getting bigger without ever crossing the line between fetus and baby … and now here they are, fending for themselves in a world they were perhaps never meant to inhabit.

 

Aware that I’m close to the point of having done enough thinking for one day, I yawn, close my eyes, and watch the rough framework of my film fall into place: If I can only get these fetuses to portray the children they never were and will never be, I think, limping toward the facade of the pretend Hotel in search of a place to sleep, there will be a built-in sense of drama, inherent beyond whatever ability I may or may not have as a Director.

 

You were given a second lease on life, I imagine telling them, from offscreen, as the opening scene unfolds. Are you glad? What use have you made of it so far, and what plans, if any, do you have for the future?