ALL FIGURES WE EVENTUALLY COME TO REGARD AS GREAT have an origin story, as they do not, to the best of my knowledge, walk fully formed out of nowhere, even if, in the retrospect of their greatness, they often appear to have.

 

Just before my negotiations with Blut Branson at the peripheries of the Movie set in the Desert reach the point of violence, he takes me aside and tells me his.

 

“Believe it or not,” he begins, immediately inducing me to doubt whatever he plans to say, “I was once a regular guy like you.”

 

“Years before your time, decades really, Dodge City was a lot like it is now. They say nothing lasts forever, but there’s an inertia to towns like this that makes you wonder. In any case, all those years ago, I found myself hanging around here, not doing much of anything. As I say, a lot like you.”

 

I open my mouth to speak up for myself, but he continues before I can.

 

“I had dreams, sure, but I was fairly certain they’d die inside me, unhatched like slowly rotting eggs. I saw no other fate for dreams. Thus, I felt no real guilt about letting mine go soft like those of my forefathers.

 

“But something happened. As I believe is often the case with Great Men like myself, an event outside the purview of my Will provided the impetus that set me on my course. Or, more accurately, the true extent of my Will first manifested from a source outside my body.

 

“A great Melancholy came over Dodge City. Over the course of one summer – this must have been 1972 or ’73, as I remember a copy of Ballard’s Crash making waves among my several literate friends and me – all of our small, private melancholies merged. Through a crack in the dreamspace or perhaps in the literal sky, the idea began to overwhelm us that we were not hovering in separate melancholic spheres, like balloons dispersing above a parade of the living, but rather joined beneath a banner of Universal Melancholy. A Power outside ourselves, we thought, feeling fear and relief merge into a feeling without a name. Of course, I did not yet know that Power was Me.

 

“Soon, by the logic that thought tends inevitably toward action, a physical banner was hung by a crew of volunteers. Stretching across Main Street, it read WE ARE SAD.

 

“Summer wore on, June’s soothing warmth yielding to July’s oppressive heat, and this Universal Melancholy took on a more definite form: as we all sat together in the square, sweltering and trying to gather our thoughts under that banner, we realized what it was: the sadness of parting. The awareness that we would all, one day, have to say goodbye. On this day, whenever it came, we would see one another for the last time. Assuming we all died or drifted apart one by one, these partings would be serial, ongoing, unresolvable. There could never, it seemed to us in those gruesomely hot July and then August afternoons, be an end to our Melancholy. There would, much to the contrary, likely come a period when we would have to part with someone we loved almost daily.

 

“As we returned home each night to twist and shiver in our sheets, we thought, when will the day come after which I will never see my friends again? Has it come already? Was today the day and so my terminal aloneness is now?

 

“Eventually, the not-knowing grew so profound that a new fixation took hold of us, every bit as forcefully as the Melancholy had: as summer gave way to autumn, we thought, with no room for negotiation, Let’s just leave.

 

“Just leave?” I ask, realizing I haven’t gotten a word in this whole time. It’s scary how overpowering Branson’s voice can be: I hadn’t, until just now, even managed to think in my own.

 

Branson nods, snarling slightly at the interruption. “Just leave. We decided that all of us, one day in September, would simply walk out of town, dispersing into the Desert, never to meet again. We wrote a Declaration stating as much, and sealed it in a vault in the Records Room of the Town Hall. Packing nothing, we’d decided to shake hands in the town square and take our leave. And that’d be it, no more fear of the unknown future moment when this leave-taking would have to occur. We’d realized we had no power to stave it off, but we did have the power to determine its location in time, and we’d resolved to use that power to make it happen now.”

 

“So you did?” I’m determined to speak more, for fear that otherwise Branson will entirely erase me from the interaction, nullifying any future chance I might have to assert myself as the Director of the Movie whose crew is frozen just beyond where we’re sitting, like the Movie itself has been paused.

 

“One morning in September, we did exactly what we said we were going to do. We left the town behind, chanting Goodbye, Goodbye, Goodbye as we marched under the WE ARE SAD banner, never to congregate beneath it again. For a few minutes, we remained visible to one another, but after each walking a mile in our own direction, we’d dispersed to the point where we were alone in the Desert. No one was on the same trajectory as anyone else. The worst had come to pass, and here we still were … or, I should say, here I still was, since the others were well and truly gone.”

 

He pauses here, looking over at me, evincing, if I’m not mistaken, relief at finding himself less alone than he was in the story he’s telling. A rare moment of vulnerability, quickly suppressed.

 

“But that wasn’t the end?”

 

He shakes his head. “It wasn’t even the beginning.”

 

*****

“I WANDERED THAT DESERT for what felt like and may well have been 20 years,” Branson continues, after making me wait so long I fear the silence may be permanent.

 

“Eating snakes and tiny rat-like mammals, drinking from cacti and the occasional standing pond, I wandered and thought, bedding down in caves or under the open sky. For the first 10 years, I thought about what my life had been. I assumed it was going to end in the Desert, so I thought back on what I’d done and seen – basically, nothing. I, like you, had led a wasted life, not even a flash in the pan.

 

“But then, somewhere around year 11, the balance shifted. I realized – in what you call a Moment of Revelation – that I wasn’t going to die out there. Not yet. If I’d survived that long, I figured, I was bound to survive longer. Without my having meant for it to, my life in the Desert had become sustainable. I was still young, I realized; time was still on my side.

 

“So, for the next 10 years, I turned my thoughts to the future. I stopped asking myself Which hole would you like to die in? and started asking, What would you like to do with all the time you have left? It was a curse and a blessing, as they say, to be fraught with a future I hadn’t planned on having to account for.

 

“As the years wore on, I started thinking about Movies. All my memories of my youth and upbringing in Dodge City, and of the great Melancholy that had come over us all, took on a cinematic dimension. I started to think, All of that … all of what happened … what was it all if not a Movie?

 

From here, it was only a short leap to the crucial thought: “And if it was all a Movie, who Directed it if not Me?”

 

 

He pauses again, staring off into the Desert where we’re sitting, which I realize is the same Desert he wandered through all those years ago, coming to the decision that set him on the path whose conclusion he’s by now almost reached. All things that seem far away are actually nearby, I think. Everything’s superimposed. I open my mouth, but he continues before I work up the courage to say it.

 

“So, for the next 10 years, I wandered deeper into the Desert, growing more and more charged with ambition. An ambition I’d previously refused to admit to myself I now admitted freely, proudly even, feeling it swell in my gut as I shouted at the night sky. “Nothing can stop me from becoming what I’ve decided to become, because if anything could, it would have by now,” I shouted.

 

“Like so, in the spring of 1995, I arrived in a town. After all those years of sand and dust, I crossed a line out of nowhere and into somewhere. It seemed at once miraculous and inevitable, like I’d simply reached the point I’d been approaching all along. Like I’d conjured this town through pure force of mind, in my first conscious Act of Direction, but also that the conjuring was no less predetermined than God’s conjuring of the universe.”

 

I clear my throat, this time forcing myself past fear. “And the town you reached was Dodge City?”

 

Branson smiles, eying me like I’m an intelligent 5-year-old. “Well, at first I wasn’t sure. I walked through a town that looked familiar, catching the eyes of people who looked familiar too, though it was hard to tell for sure. I had been so fundamentally changed by my years in the Desert that, even if it was Dodge City, it no longer struck me in the same way.”

 

“What was the difference?”

 

“Well, for one thing, the banner had fallen down. And now I saw potential where before I’d seen only stagnation. All these people, whether they were the old population likewise returned from the Desert or a new population who’d filled the void we left behind, looked at me with reverence, awe. All modesty aside, I could feel myself emitting a mythic charge. They knew they were products of my mind, and thus slaves to my Vision. Alive solely to play the roles I cast them in.

 

“I was the Man Returned. Resurrected. These people looked at me like a man out of Scripture, at last incarnated in Flesh rather than merely in Word, grown wise and courageous enough to take my stand. Here He is … they thought, and I thought, Yes, here I am.

 

“And like so you took control of Dodge City?”

 

Branson smiles again. “I didn’t have to. I was Dodge City, and Dodge City was Me. Everything and everyone there lives by the Grace of Me.”

 

He doesn’t add ‘including you,’ but I can tell he knows it’s what I’m thinking.

 

 

“Those people were mine. Absolutely mine. I began work on my first Movie that day. With an entire town’s worth of free labor, production went fast. Before long, Branson Entertainments was up and running, an enterprise fully coterminous with the Dodge City Film Industry. Soon we had our first Movie in the can, playing on every screen in town. Then our second, then …”

 

“Then the rest was history,” I say, wondering if I’m any more capable of resisting the power of the Great Man before me than those original stunned townsfolk were. And if I’m not, I wonder what’s left … I wonder if maybe I too should disappear into the Desert, ready to die there unless fate intercedes.

 

Maybe what worked for him will work for me.

 

Next time I look up, Branson’s gone, setting up a shot on the Movie set that I realize is now unambiguously his, as it always has been.