THERE’S NO QUESTION THAT THE TIME TO ABANDON WHAT I’D BRIEFLY REFERRED TO AS “MY FILM SET” HAS ARRIVED. Even if Blut Branson hadn’t commandeered it quite so aggressively, the simple fact of his presence would in short order have goaded me into leaving.

 

So here I go.

 

Head hung, I march into the distance, leaving him to make whatever he will of the set I’d once hoped would serve as the locus of my feature film debut.

 

Ashamed, as usual, of my cowardice, I decide to cross the entire desert. If I make it to the far side, I figure I’ll be glad to emerge into whatever place happens to be there.

 

All I know is I’m not going back to Dodge City, at least not willingly.

 

Maybe, I think, as the last lights of Branson’s set vanish behind me, I’ll manage to leave this part of the country for good, thereby setting a new adventure in motion … one that, I hope, will have little or nothing to do with the Dodge City Film Industry.

 

Or any film industry at all. Those days are — if I have any say in the matter — well and truly behind me.

 

I walk in a straight line for what feels like longer than all night, but there’s no shift in the dark overhead. I’m hoping this isn’t the kind of desert where it’s night all the time.

 

*****

TIME TO SLEEP. I find a declivity in the sand and settle into it, staring up at a sliver of moon.

 

As soon as my eyes droop shut, I feel a pair of hands tugging at my sleeve. I keep my eyes closed, hoping it’ll go away if I don’t acknowledge it. But this only works in certain stories I’ve read, and maybe in other parts of the country, in other deserts.

 

Not here. My sleeve goes on being tugged until I open my eyes.

 

When I do, I see a mild-looking, grey-haired man wearing a headlamp. It illuminates his features like the text on a page under a flashlight. ‘Mild through and through’ is my read on him — ‘a  man either with no malice whatsoever in his system, or with malice so deeply buried and so well integrated it casts no shadow on his surface.’

 

Defenseless as I am, I decide to assume the former.

 

“Dr. Gentle.” He extends his hand. I take it and he tries to pull me up, but he’s too weak. I end up pulling him down instead. I close my eyes against his headlamp’s glare and crawl out from under him, get to my feet, and then help him to his.

 

When we’re both standing, he laughs and adjusts his headlamp. “Phew,” he says. “For a minute there, I lost myself.”

 

I tell him not to worry, though I can’t say he’s made a heroic first impression.

 

“Look.” He points his headlamp at a tethered donkey, which moans at the dawning awareness that soon it will be responsible for two riders.

 

Though I’d like to ask where he’s headed and make a show of considering whether to travel there with him, I’m not exactly in a position to act like I have a route of my own mapped out.

 

So I climb aboard, behind Dr. Gentle, and off we go, our donkey wheezing pitifully beneath us, one of us Sancho to the other’s Quixote, though I can’t yet say which is which.

 

*****

AS WE SLOG ONWARD, the sun starts to rise in the distance. I have the suspicion that it isn’t cresting the horizon on its way toward overtaking the sky, as usual, but rather that we’re approaching a country where it’s always day, leaving the one where it’s always night behind.

 

I decide to keep this suspicion to myself.

 

“So, Dr. Gentle,” I say, hoping to change the subject, “what exactly’s your deal?”

 

“Well,” he begins, turning around on the donkey to face me, “people around here call me the Gentile Cronenberg.”

 

Around where? I think. But I just raise my eyebrows, encouraging him to go on.

 

“As you likely know,” he goes on, “all souls are divided at birth between Jewish and Gentile aspects. These are not, as has been popularly assumed, singular properties that manifest in individuals to the exclusion of the other. At least not at first. Before a soul reaches maturity, there is a pitched battle between these two manifestations. Only one can achieve dominance.”

 

“And the other?”

 

His face slackens under a weight of sadness. “The other, well, exists in a sort of under-expressed limbo. A half-life, you might say. A living byproduct of the process by which a soul becomes most fully what it is.”

 

“So this byproduct of the soul becomes another person?”

 

Dr. Gentle nods. “Correct. A new person is born, sometimes in adulthood, once the Jew/Gentile battle, within a given soul, has reached its conclusion.”

 

“So in your case …”

 

“In my case, the battle was won, in no uncertain terms, by the illustrious Jewish filmmaker David Cronenberg. I, well … I’m what’s left. The runoff. The Gentile Cronenberg. A small-sized person, and I don’t mind saying it. I was born in my mid-thirties as a Youth Pastor named Dr. Gentle. With no soul of my own to speak of, I’ve pledged my years on this earth to shepherding the souls of others across this vast desert.”

 

He sighs and looks me over for understanding, which I feign.

 

“I content myself in the knowledge that I am not as badly off as the Jewish David Lynch. Now there is truly a man with nothing to live for.”

 

I nod, beginning to feel my feigned understanding harden into something real. Or maybe it’s just the look on my face that’s hardening.

 

 

“Are we almost there?” I ask.

 

“Where?” Dr. Gentle looks at me with extremely concerned eyes.

 

I shrug. “I’d assumed there was somewhere we were going.”

 

He turns back and grips the donkey’s reins and mutters, “They always do.”

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